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10 Faces of Sonny Chiba (10 Movies), The
THE STRAIGHT DOPE:
Sonny Chiba is sort of the red-headed step-child of martial arts movies' 70's heyday. Lacking the sly sex appeal of Bruce Lee and the humor of Jackie Chan (and, let's face it, the skills of both), Chiba is sort of a brute who literally punches out teeth in his pursuit of being a bad-ass. Not helping matters any is the fact that he does karate which looks sloppy and stiff compared to the limber, balletic kung-fu forms on display in the very best martial arts films. Quentin Tarantino talked up Chiba's gruesome style in True Romance and cast him in his upcoming Kill Bill but is Chiba really worth the lip-service? An unbelievably cheap DVD collection, The 10 Faces of Sonny Chiba, presents a ten-pack of his films, a good enough cross section by which to judge the man.
The first film presented in the set is Street Fighter (1974), the one that put Chiba on the map. Notorious for being the first film to receive an X rating solely on the basis of violence, Street Fighter is a clumsy tale of payback and gangsterism. Chiba plays a baddie-for-hire who follows the cash. A Yakuza plot to kidnap a wealthy heiress puts him on the make. Chiba gouges eyes and knocks out teeth, plus there's implied rape (not by Chiba) and a good deal of super-red blood. If one thing can be said for Chiba's films over his contemporaries it's that they keep you on the edge of your seat, not sure whether to watch or cover your eyes. There is a dingy, dirty feel to Street Fighter where you never really know if some sick dismemberment is about to happen. The film isn't what I'd call ultra-violent but there is an edge. It also features one of the most unintentionally funny moments I've ever seen in a film: Mid-sentance, one minor character's dubbed voicing blatantly changes from one voice-over actor to another. Classic!
The Legend of the Eight Samurai (1983) is a horrendously ugly, loud, obnoxious period piece with samurai and princesses and magic. The image quality is so bad that it's a little tough to tell which of the interchangeable characters is actually played by Sonny Chiba. Not his finest moment.
Chiba returns to the era he knows best with Return of the Street Fighter (1974) and jumps right in with more bloody fun. This time he dispatches an enemy by jamming his fingers through the poor guy's throat (in the first few minutes, no less!) Some key characters return from Street Fighter as do the freeze-frames and karate weapons demonstrations, which are starting to look like bits from Kon Ichikawa's Tokyo Olympiad by this point. Much like many of the films in this set, Chiba spends a lot of time off-screen.
The Bodyguard (1974) finds Chiba playing himself (I think) and taking on organized crime to defend a mysterious woman. The plot is even more convoluted than usual but the film distinguishes itself by featuring an opening scene in a New York karate school on a super-seedy stretch of 42nd street. What this sequence has to do with the rest of the film is anybody's guess.
Street Fighter's Last Revenge (1974) might be the best looking film in the set. Credited to New Line Cinema the print and transfer are actually in pretty good shape. There are some hilarious Mission: Impossible-style rubber masks and a scene in which every single shot features a dramatic zoom-in. There's even a "crazy Mexican" who seems to have the ability to burn objects without touching them. Last Revenge Also features one of Chiba's most romantic lines: "I think that dress would look much better off."
Shogun's Ninja (1982) is a major grudge match between Chiba and competing members of his clan. This one is tough to watch, however, thanks to a terrible transfer and some really disgusting violence: Only a few minutes in and already Chiba has a knife through his eye. And just when you thought things couldn't get any worse he has to ask his young child to pull it out. All I can say is that these ninjas are totally sweet.
Sister Street Fighter (1974) is completely unrelated to the original Street Fighter, if I understood anything about the plot, which involves Etsuko Shihomi trying to rescue her brother (which is funny because in Street Fighter she was trying to avenge her brother's death.) The film doesn't have much over the other films except that Shihomi is a fun heroine and it reminded me of The Woman Avenger, a kung-fu classic that left a deep impression on my young, malleable mind a couple of decades ago.
Dragon Princess (1981) features another borderline unwatchable transfer and yet more eye-poking. Nothing new here.
Samurai Reincarnation (1981) is probably the most structurally ambitious film in the set. After perishing in a massive massacre, one beheaded samurai is reincarnated by a strange lightning storm. After going Jason Voorhees on his murderers he sets out to resurrect himself a gang. Chiba plays a warrior out to destroy these evil spirits. The chapter structure that introduces the various characters plus the notion that regret is the emotion that leaves spirits ripe for this twisted return makes Samurai Reincarnation stand out from the pack. That plus some of the most innappropriate dubbing voices this side of What's Up, Tiger Lily? and a weird moment featuring two guys kissing.
Karate Warriors (1976) is yet another drug dealers-gangs chopsocky mess. The opening scenes play like Cops although in this situation all suspects are considered dead meat.
So what did we learn about Sonny Chiba? He's far more likely to get his ass whooped than his contemporaries. He loves to poke eyes out. His karate form is pretty sloppy. And he's got big, bushy eyebrows. Still, there is something endearing about him. He's more of an underdog than the other martial arts movie masters. He's also pretty open to playing both the good guy and the bad guy, often in the same film. None of these movies are masterpieces but some of them have their moments, particularly Sister Street Fighter and Street Fighter's Last Revenge.
The video quality on this set varies wildly. Some of the films, particularly Street Fighter and its progeny, look surprisingly good. Some are even in widescreen (although not anamorphic.) However, this is relative to the source material and price of the set. Even the best looking films in the set look a bit blurry and badly compressed. Other films, like The Legend of the Eight Samurai are damn near unwatchable.
The stereo audio is okay considering the sources. The surprising thing is that Street Fighter actually features a Chinese soundtrack as well. Like the visual presentation the audio varies from film to film. It's never great but on some of the discs it is pretty terrible.
Ten features for under twenty bucks! What more do you want? Actually there is a horrendous looking Warner Brothers cartoon on disc one but who cares? Chiba's bio is also available on nearly every disc.
Sonny Chiba is not a guy who grows on you. He's not charming, funny or sexy. You either like his bloody combat style or you don't. Fans of the man should definitely get this set even though the quality of the prints and transfers is not necessarily of the highest standard. Having all these crazy movies in one box should be enough to send any Chiba fan into a violent fit. Which, I guess, would be a good thing.