A knock-out quartet of martial arts thrillers starring '70s action icon Etsuko Shihomi (western world name: Sue Shiomi), The Sister Street Fighter Collection offers great transfers, trailers, attractive packaging, and an especially good booklet that helps put these pictures into context. High art they're not, but as escapist action fare they deliver the goods while the immensely likeable Shihomi really is something like a kid sister. With her contrastingly intense, Sonny Chiba-like eyes and fresh-faced dimples she's not sexy in the conventional sense, but rather it's her very ordinariness, cute but commonplace, combined with an impressive physical prowess that make her so appealing. She's like the sibling you always wish you had, or maybe the girl-next-door you could take home to mother - or someone to have around to beat the crap out of your enemies.
Sister Street Fighter (Onna hissatsu-ken, or "Lady Killing Fist," 1974) began as a quasi spin-off of Toei Studios' Street Fighter (Hissatsu-ken) films, that bone-crunchingly violent martial arts series starring Shinichi "Sonny" Chiba. More generally both Chiba's and Shihomi's series - seven films between them, most in 1974 with unofficial sequels and offshoots to follow - were conceived as Japan's answer to the worldwide success of Bruce Lee, as big in Japan as the rest of world. Toei's obvious aim was to fill the international market void following Lee's untimely death the previous summer and in large measure they succeeded. Significantly, Shihomi's character in the series, Koryu, is half-Hong Kongese and each film opens not in Japan but Hong Kong. Stylistically, from the main title design to the choreography of the action scenes, they clearly were patterned after Lee's films rather than Toei's own gangster and chanbara movies. All this seems to have been a deliberate effort on the part of the studio to muddy the origin of these films by deceptively suggesting (at least to non-Japanese audiences) that Shihomi has been plucked from the same vine and vineyard as Lee.
It worked. Chiba's films and the first Sister Street Fighter were among the top-grossing Japanese movies in America during the 1970s, becoming a staple particularly at inner-city theaters, old movie palaces in decline after the roadshow era, to enthusiastic, mostly black and Hispanic audiences.
In the first film, tomboy martial arts champion Koryu Lee (renamed Tina Long for the American version) is surprised to learn that her brother, Mansei (Hiroshi Miyauchi), is an undercover Hong Kong detective who had been investigating a heroin smuggling ring until his disappearance in Yokohama. She flies to Japan to investigate, hoping to find her brother and eventually rescue him from drug lord Kakuzaki (Bin Amatsu) and chief underling Inubashiri (Masashi Ishibashi), operating out of an Enter the Dragon-like dungeon lair. Aiding her in mission is old school chum and martial arts virtuoso Emi Hayakawa (Emi Hayakawa) and enigmatic tough guy Hibiki (Sonny Chiba, in a small guest role), both from her old dojo.
Koryu eventually learns the smugglers are using ladies wigs (!) to move their drugs, but to reach her brother she must face a gauntlet of Kakuzaki's army of martial artists - no one ever thinks of using a gun on Koryu and be done with it* - including South American Karate Champion Eva Parrish and Thai kickboxers "Amazon 7," gals who for no clear reason all dress like Wilma Flintstone.
Sister Street Fighter is mindless but entertaining, with manga-like villains (whose names and martial art specialties are identified in freeze-frame title card shots) and energetic if chaotic action. If its fight choreography lacks the ballet-like grace of the best Hong Kong action films (say, for example the films of Michelle Yeoh) it compensates with a cinematic style that's a bit more visually sophisticated, the product of talent apprenticed through Toei's peak years.
Shihomi herself, just 18 years old when the series began, was a last-minute replacement for Taiwanese-born Angela Mao (Enter the Dragon). Personally recommended for the job by Chiba, Shihomi in her debut proves she's no slouch in the martial arts, impressively doing all her own stunts, including sailing over barbed-wire fences and engaging in a particularly impressive fight on a wobbly rope bridge, high above the surf.
Even before the film went into release Toei ordered a sequel Sister Street Fighter - Hanging by a Thread (Onna hissatsu-ken - Kiki ippatsu, 1974). So rushed was the production that its cast and crew, most repeating from the first picture, all but remake the very film they finished only weeks before. This time Koryu heads to Yokohama in search of a woman named Birei, kidnapped by diamond smugglers who move their hot rocks by surgically implanting them into the nubile buttocks of Chinese prostitutes (!). Koryu's older sister, Bykakuran (Tamayo Mitsukawa), working as a jewelry designer, is secretly if unhappily involved with the gangsters.
This and the sequel to follow, The Return of the Sister Street Fighter rigidly follow the established formula. The action begins in Hong Kong, she heads for Yokohama but before she can even say "Taxi!" is attacked by an army of two-bit hoods, a sibling or close friend inevitably is by blackmail or drug addiction forced to collaborate with the villains (Koryu rivals Death Wish's Paul Kersey in this regard; nearly every living relative meets a violent end); and the bad guys demonstrate their might to the strains of classical music, in this case Night on Bald Mountain. Needless to say, this is not a series best enjoyed in rapid succession.
This time the main villain is Kazunari Osone (Hideo Murata, in inadequate old-age makeup) and his Three Honiden Bros. More interesting, however, are the supporting villains, which include Al Capone-like Kuroki (Koji Fujiyama, late of Daiei's Gamera series), sultry Madam Mayumi (Madame Joy, a transsexual in the Black Lizard tradition) and her assistant (Shohei Yamamoto) who walks around with a giant Macaw on his shoulder. Significantly, all the villains in all the Sister Street Fighter movies have dark circles under their eyes, as if their villainy is keeping them up nights.
The weakest of the four films, Hanging by a Thread all too clearly exhibits signs of having been rushed through production. The screenplay is practically non-existent: there's no character development or story, just broad villains for Koryu to pound into the dirt and virtually non-stop action. Still, series director Kazuhiko Yamaguchi keeps things lively with little flourishes, like his subliminal removal of select frames when a villain rushes the camera and shocks the audience with his sudden burst of speed, or this film's abstract bit where Koryu approaches a red, typhoon-like swirling sky as autumn leaves rustle about her, recalling the best Female Convict Scorpion movies.
The Return of the Sister Street Fighter (Kaette kita onna - Hissastsu-ken, 1975) benefits from the bit of breathing room between productions. It's no more original than its predecessor, but its relative brevity (just 77 minutes) and more assured hand make it the superior sequel.
Back in Hong Kong, an old friend of Koryu's, Detective Cho (Jiro Chiba, Shinichi's brother), shortly before being stabbed right through the tie, asks Koryu to accompany his niece Rika to Yokohama and look for the little girl's mother, Shurei, who has become the mistress of Oh Ryu Mei (Rinichi Yamamoto), "shadow ruler of Yokohama's Chinatown," and whose "certain large Japanese corporation" is hoarding stolen gold. Quickly making contact with Suzy Wong, a prostitute at Oh's Yokohama nightclub-brothel (says one American sailor, "Whattya say we get it on, babe?"); and Shurei's sister, Reika, Koryu is also aided by superfluous fourth ally, Michi (Michi Love), a friend from Koryu's old dojo.
Sitting on a massive wicker chair beneath a giant Chinese character for "Oh" (also meaning "king"), the crime lord watches his assassins in gladiator-like combat, from what looks like a Zulu warrior (though actually a Japanese in blackface) and an ancient Babylonian, as well as Ebikura (Masashi Ishibashi), a sneering killer-for-hire whose attire suggests a singularly unfashionable flamenco dancer. Oh offers his top assassins 10 million yen to the man who kills Koryu, with brazen party crasher Takeshi Kurosaki (Yasuaki Kurata, also in Hanging by a Thread) boastful that he's the man for the job.
Despite the title Sister Street Fighter - Fifth Level Fist (Onna hissatsu-ken godan, 1976) is a sequel in name only, an oddball but entertaining action yarn mixing tongue-in-cheek humor with high melodrama. This time Shihomi is Kiku Nakagawa, the daughter of a wealthy, upwardly mobile kimono shop family in Kyoto. Though her ambitious, upwardly mobile mother wants to train Kiku in delicate arts like flower arrangement and marry her off to a wealthy family, she's much more interested in karate.
Trouble erupts when the half-black stepbrother Jim (Ken Wallace) of her Okinawan friend Michi (Michi Love again), she born of the same mother but a white father, becomes involved with the "largest drug ring since World War II!" Unbeknownst to Michi, Jim's trying to raise cash for a long dreamed-of restaurant by working part-time as one of the drug ring's assassins.
The film's novelty is that the drugs, first stashed away in fresh fish then hidden in cheap, exported statues of Buddha, are being channeled through the drug ring's ingenious if highly improbable front: a movie studio. Yes, "Hollywood producer" Joe Spencer (Claude Gagnon, later a writer-director-producer in real life) and studio mogul Fujiyama (Nobuo Kawai) are actually shipping heroin to America to buttress Japan's declining film industry! Also on the case is male chauvinist Detective Suji Takagi (Tsunehiko Watase), a man whom Kiku's uneducated father (Masafumi Suzuki) would like to see marry his little girl.
The other main attribute is its surprising frankness about the racism sometimes endured by biracial offspring. Only Kiku is color-blind and unhesitatingly loyal to these hapless siblings, and the cruelty of even Japanese children to the pair when they were younger (seen in black and white flashbacks) is still quite shocking.
Conversely, the rest of the film mostly goes for laughs, such a one scene that finds Kiku in that classic damsel-in-distress position of being tied to a treetrunk about to be cut in half by a giant buzzsaw. (Impressively, Shihomi gamely allows herself to be threatened by a real saw.) There are numerous movie references, and the film almost seems to be acknowledging Toei Studios' own shady past and yakuza ties.**
Video & Audio
The 16:9 transfers on all five films look just great, probably looking better than when they played Japanese theaters and certainly better than when they were exhibited in downtown grindhouses in America back in the seventies. All five films offer two mixes: their original mono and a 5.1 remix. The remixes have a lot more oomph but not much directionality. Sister Street Fighter includes an English-dubbed track and is presented in its original uncut version; that film had been shorn of five minutes in its first American release. The subtitles are generally very good and are not "dubtitles." Happily, Ronin Entertainment identifies via subtitles the names and positions of most of the crew and cast.
The big supplement is an excellent 18-page, full-color booklet, featuring informative essays on each film by Patrick Macias, author of TokyoScope: The Japanese Cult Film Companion; an interview with Kazuhiko Yamaguchi, director of the first three titles; one with Bahamian-born, American-educated Ken Wallace, "Jim" in Fifth Level Fist; and finally a concise biographical portrait of Shihomi herself.
Also included are subtitled, 16:9 enhanced Trailers for series, eight minutes worth in all.
This is a terrific set: the films look great and are a lot of fun, the packaging (which includes reproductions of the original Japanese posters) is attractive and sturdy, and the booklet is a great thing to have all by itself. Here's hoping Ronin Entertainment is quick to rush out more just like it. Highly Recommended.
* This, of course, is a convention of such films, so to complain about its lack of realism would be like complaining about all the singing and dancing in musicals.
** Several years ago I met Toei founder Hiroshi Okawa at the premiere of Toei's big film that year. I was surprised to see him - I thought he had died many years before - and in keeping with Toei's gangster reputation he looked just like a Japanese Marc Lawrence. When I too-casually approached him several gorillas straight out of Battles without Honor and Humanity initially blocked my way, instinctively protecting him.
Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's most recent essays appear in Criterion's new three-disc Seven Samurai DVD and BCI Eclipse's The Quiet Duel.