This box set is comprised of three films, Karate Bull Fighter, Karate Bear Fighter and Karate For Life, each one focusing on a different part of the life of Matsutatsu Oyama, a great practitioner and teacher of karate. He's played here by Sonny Chiba, himself a student of Oyama's. Each of the films in question are worth a look, and this set offers a great deal for anyone who is interested in the particular charms of Japanese martial arts films.
Karate Bull Fighter is the first film in the set. I suppose I should break the bad news to those of you who are unfamiliar with this movie: despite what the title implies, this is not about a professional bullfighter who uses martial arts to win his matches. There is, in fact, only one scene in which he fights a bull and it comes not at the climax but right square in the middle. The rest of the movie doesn't quite live up to that wild scene, but is very well done nevertheless.
Our story begins in 1949 in Kyoto. The occupying American military have just lifted a ban on karate, and the first tournament since the end of the war is underway. Among the participants is a dirty, unshaven man dressed in rags who, upon arrival, annihilates the competition; this is Matsutatsu Oyama. After winning the trophy, he's approached by the master of a local dojo with an offer to train in his gym. Oyama angrily turns him down, accusing him of turning the sport into little more than a dance. For him, karate belongs to the manly art of self-defense, not the exhibition arenas.
He stalks out in a huff. Some time later, he is making his living as a pedicab driver when he picks up the fare of a young woman, Chiako (Yumi Takigawa) in the company of an American officer. Believing her to be a prostitute, he becomes quietly enraged and drives them to a remote location, where he beats up the soldier and rapes the woman. He's arrested by the American authorities and forced to fight a boxer for his freedom. He prevails, and moves in with Chiako, who nurses him back to health (as is sadly not uncommon in Asian films, rape is used either as a source of comedy or the beginnings of a blossoming romance). He takes on a young student, who he trains harshly but never with cruelty. It is during one of these sessions that a commotion erupts in the distance - a bull has escaped and is now wandering the streets causing havoc! In the scene we've all been waiting for, Oyama dispatches the bull with his karate; its a very impressive scene, filmed with a real bull (well, for about 98% of the shots) and ending in a satisfyingly gory climax.
You could, if you liked, stop the film here - almost exactly at the midpoint - and end on a perfectly fine note. The rest of the movie is also very good - as violent, goofy and engrossing as what came before - but I'll stop the plot summary here, as what comes next is the result of some unexpected plot manuevering. By no means does it go downhill from the bullfighting scene, although that will certainly be the one that lingers longest in your imagination.
Karate Bull Fighter is a very good movie, one which successfully manages to make martial arts (and the practice thereof) the center of the plot, not just another generic convention. Oyama struggles to define his art in a world where it was been cheapened into an empty spectacle, but the film smartly challenges his attitude, raising the question of how far one should be willing to go for the sake of one's beliefs.
Of course any movie with the word "karate" in the title ultimately stands or falls based on the quality of the action, and Karate Bull Fighter does very well on this point. Director Yamaguchi seems to understand how to shoot an action scene; even with heavy use of such cinematic bells and whistles as rapid cutting, sudden close-ups and heavy use of the zoom lens serve to enhance, rather than obscure the action of the scene. The rest of the film benefits from snappy direction as well, including some unexpectedly bold framings (I think I even spied the use of the dreaded split-field diopter in one scene, Citizen Kane fans take note) and a nicely-done single-shot-trip through a crowded night club.
Karate Bull Fighter takes itself seriously enough for you to care, but there are some moments of unintentional hilarity, particularly a screwy song played over a training montage, the lyrics of which (helpfully translated) extol the virtues of proper karate practice with all the stiffness of a Soviet socialist-realist tractor anthem. Plus, later on, there's that stable of Japanese genre films, the whiny young boy, meant here to inspire sympathy; contemporary viewers (at least if they're like me) will likely reward him with a different reaction.
Still, unintentional laughs are better than none at all, and you'll still find yourself wrapped up in this one despite yourself. With the MSRP of this set being as low as it is, I could safely recommend a purchase based on this one title alone.
As it happens, though, Karate Bear Fighter, the 1975 sequel, is even better. This film finds Oyama up to his old tricks - he's been expelled from the "karate circle", yet he continues to practice his art with anyone foolish enough to accept the challenge. In the first minutes of the film he dispatches several members of a karate school, angering the local master who, despite that, refuses to honor the outcast with a proper duel.
Oyama heads to Tokyo, where he encounters a local con-man peddling phoney medicine under his name. After a confrontation, the two become friends, and Oyama helps the man charm a local girl he has a crush on. All the while, Oyama must fend off attacks from assassins sent by the karate school he humiliated in the beginning of the film. In the middle of all this, Oyama gets a visit from a strange old man who leaves him with a bit of cryptic advice.
Tensions with the karate school reach of boiling point, and, after a violent clash, Oyama retreats to Hokkaido. There he encounters the young child of an alcoholic single father, and a friendship begins to bloom between them. The dad suffers serious injuries at work and must be hospitalized; Oyama agrees to fight a hungry bear, in return for which he'll earn enough money to pay for the man's care. Shortly thereafter, he returns to the city to finally settle the score with the school.
Bear Fighter, while more episodic than the typical Hollywood film, is much more tightly plotted and structured than its predecessor, with a much more even pace. There's a lot more (intentional) humor in the beginning, but then it shifts into a very bleak mood by the end, finishing on a note of such melancholy that I wasn't sure what to make of it. I'm still not, but I can't deny that its stuck with me since.
Yamaguchi's direction of Bear Fighter marks a step ahead as well. Perhaps he's gained a measure of confidence from directing a bona fide hit. Whatever the reason, Bear Fighter feels much more assured and fully realized. Yamaguchi has some fun with lateral staging; watch for some nifty ensemble compositions, with multiple figures arranged in clever patterns within the frame. Many other striking widescreen shots occur throughout, making excellent use of the 2.35:1 frame. The action scenes as well show a willingness to experiment with long takes over the first film's more traditionally fast-cut fights. There's a very impressive and elaborate single-shot battle in a restaurant, and later long-take fights actually allow Chiba to show off his formidable athleticism and speed.
And, finally, I would be neglecting my duties if I didn't devote a few words here to the bear fight itself. This scene is doubtless the reason why many people will even bother with this movie and it pains me somewhat to say that it is among the weakest sections. First and foremost, the bear is quite plainly a man in a bear suit. Normally this wouldn't be that big of a deal - I'm certainly capable to accepting the limitations of certain kinds of special effects and letting my imagination fill in the cracks - except for the fact that the rest of the movie up to this point relies on a kind of realism for its power. Every other scene besides this one takes place in a wide shot, with Chiba displaying unrehearsed-looking demonstrations of his karate prowess in real space and time; when the bear shows up, Yamaguchi suddenly (and necessarily) resorts to hiding figures behind trees and bushes, much more intrusive cutting, and so forth. Its very jarring and becomes a bit of a distraction from what is otherwise a surprisingly absorbing film. While its not a bad scene - Bear Fighter doesn't really have any bad scenes - its hardly the highlight. Aside from that rather embarrassing misstep, Karate Bull Fighter is among the best Japanese martial arts films I've seen in some time. It succeeds on almost every level and is well worth your attention.
Karate For Life is the weakest film of the set, but it makes up for this somewhat by also being the goofiest. In this film, Oyama follows a shady promoter to Okinawa, where he becomes a professional wrestler (!), putting on matches for the rude and racist GIs stationed there. Since the theme of the series thus far has been Oyama's dedication to the purity of his art, you can imagine that it isn't long before he begins to chafe under the conditions under which he works (fixed matches, making the opponent look better than he is, etc). and rebels by fighting the matches his way. This does not go over well with the local gangsters who run the whole operation, and, after several attempts to extort promises of good behaviour go awry, they strike back at Oyama by attacking his friends (consisting of a good-hearted prostitute and - horrors! - a whole gang of whiny Japanese children). In a furious and fun climax, Oyama and his judo-master tag-team partner take on what seems like the entire gang in revenge, breaking limbs left, right and center in a wild display of mayhem.
I'm simplifying the plot of Karate For Life in part because its the most episodic of the films, with the greatest amount of narrative padding and not a few non-sequitors. The opening and closing fifteen minutes consist entirely - and I mean entirely - of riotous martial arts sequences, in which dozens of would-be assailants fall under Oyama's vicious karate. They're all well-shot and staged, but they have the feeling of a long guitar solo in the middle of a concert - its kind of cool, but it doesn't really have much to do with what else is going on. Take those sequences away and you're left with only an hour of movie left.
And that hour is, frankly, not made up of the strongest material. While the concept of testing Oyama's convictions in the world of professional wrestling might seem like a nifty idea, in practice it clashes a bit with the (relatively) serious tone set by the rest of the films, monkeying with this viewer's expectations in ways that didn't always pay off.
Furthermore, Karate For Life is the most unpleasantly anti-American of the three movies. There always was an undercurrent of this in the other two films, but it becomes a central theme here, even blossoming into subtle racism and Negrophobia (Oyama's friend turned toward prostitution after being raped by a black American soldier).
Still, Karate For Life is never boring and its weirder plot conceits are just loony enough to keep you interested. While it is easily the least of the three films, it isn't bad by any means - if it was a stand-alone film, it would be remembered as an interesting, competent, curiosity. I'd recommend checking this one out if you're specifically a fan of martial arts, Japanese genre films or Sonny Chiba.
The image quality of Karate Bull Fighter is the best - its not the best I've ever seen, but certainly very good, with no defects that I was able to detect. The other two movies, however, had some slight problems: some noticable ghosting, a bit of image enhancement. This isn't bad enough to ruin the viewing experience, but it keeps me from giving this as high a grade as I might have. Overall, the video is servicable, if not outstanding. All of the films are in anamorphic widescreen, in 2.35:1 ratio.
Karate Bull Fighter alternates between mono and stereo sountracks. The mono seems to be the original, theatrical track, but I preferred the stereo, as it seemed more dynamic. The other two stick with mono, which sounds fine but gets a bit distorted in the (many) louder moments. As with the image, the sound is perfectly adequate, but nothing you'll rave to your friends about.
The only extras appear on the Karate Bull Fighter and Bear Fighter discs: previews for Karate Bull Fighter, Killing Machine, Karate Bear Fighter, Karate For Life, Shogun's Samurai, G.I. Smaurai, Black Magic Wars, Legend of the Eight Samurai and Resurrection of the Golden Wolf. The Karate For Life disc has no extras. Final Thoughts:
Despite some minor reservations, I wholeheartedly recommend these discs, which I think will give you many hours of pleasure over the summer. The Karate films have a great range of moods and tones which don't always hang terribly well together, but are at least satisfying in their own right. A fun combination of action, pathos, nihilism, comedy (both intentional and otherwise), any fan of martial arts films will definitely want to pick these up. Check it out.