If Sonny Chiba was Japan's answer to Bruce Lee, then maybe you could consider Etsuko ‘Sue' Shihomi (often credited as Shiomi) to be Japan's answer to Angela Mao (who was originally considered for the lead role in the first film). Though she retired from the public eye completely after getting married in the eighties, from the mid-seventies through the mid-eighties she was a stable of the Japanese action film scene and she starred in well over thirty feature films before calling it quits. Sort of a female Sonny Chiba protégé (she was trained at Chiba's Japan Action Club), she never the less managed to carve out a niche of her own thanks in no small part to the four films included in this collection.
Sister Street Fighter (1974):
The first film in the set was spun off of the success of Sonny Chiba's famous Street Fighter films; with a cameo appearance from Sonny himself ensuring that there'd definitely be a crossover audience for this inaugural entry.
When the movie begins in seventies Hong Kong, Koryu Lee (Shihomi, in the U.S. dub her character is named Tina Long) has just found out that her brother Mansei (Hiroshi Miyauchi) has gone missing somewhere in Yokohama, Japan. What she didn't know until now was that he was working as an undercover narc trying to bring down an international heroin smuggling ring operating between Hong Kong and Japan. To try and do her part to help her brother out, Koryu hops on the next plane to Japan and once she lands, she starts doing some detective work of her own.
The more she snoops around, the more she learns and soon enough she traces things back to a dope king named Kakuzaki (Bin Amatsu) whose gang of minions are smuggling smack by hiding it in wigs! She knows that Kakuzaki has got Mansei stashed away somewhere so she starts fighting her way into the deeper layers of his organization. Unfortunately, Kakuzaki's right hand man, Inubashiri (Masashi Ishibashi), is pretty rough stuff as are the Amazon Seven (a group of ladies in cavewoman outfits) but thankfully she's got a couple of allies, namely Hibiki (Sonny Chiba! His character is called ‘Sonny' in the U.S. version just so there's no mistaking him for someone else!) and Emi (Emi Hayakawa), to help her out should the going get tough.
Shihomi was only eighteen years old when this first film was made and there are a few spots in the movie where she looks a little nervous, but for the most part she gives her all here and while the martial arts scenes would get better in the later films, she's got a really endearing naivety to her here that goes a long way to making her character so likeable. She's cute, but she'll kill you if you cross her. Shihomi also did all of her own stunt work in the film, her training at Chiba's Japan Action Club having paid off well.
Fast paced and deliriously seventies to its core, Sister Street Fighter is a blast. It's worth noting first and foremost that the U.S theatrical version of the film was roughly five minutes shorter than its Japanese counterpart and it's presented here in its uncut, full-strength version. Directed with plenty of style and flair by Kazuhiko Yamaguchi (the man behind Chiba's Mas Oyama trilogy made up of Karate Bullfighter, Karate Bearfighter and Karate For Life) and co-written by Norifumi Suzuki (of Sex & Fury and Convent Of The Sacred Beast fame), there's a great pop-art sensibility to the first movie that makes it completely watchable and rather impressive on a visual level.
The action moves quickly in the film, and the violence reaches levels comparable to those seen in the Chiba films that inspired it. Eyeballs are plucked and limbs are severed and there are more bone-crunching blows here than you can count. Combine this with a relatively standard but completely effective plot and some truly intriguing comic-book style bad guys and the film comes up a winner.
Note that Arrow has included both the original uncut Japanese version of the movie as well as the eighty-one-minute R-rated US cut of the film in this set.
Sister Street Fighter: Hanging By A Thread (1974):
Two weeks after shooting wrapped on the first film, Toei had a sequel cooking with Shihomi and Yamaguchi back on board before the first film was even in theaters. They knew that they had a hit on their hands and figured they should cash in on it while they could, but the extremely rushed nature of this production hurt the final product in that this second film in the series more or less just repeats what came before it without adding much of anything to it.
The film puts Koryu right back in the action, this time in Yokohama where she needs to track down and save a woman named Birei. It seems that Birei has gotten involved with the wrong diamond thieves and that they've kidnapped her but unfortunately for them, the wrong people have noticed that she's missing. As in the first film, Koryu does some snooping around in the Japanese underworld and her results soon start to pay off in the form of a few key clues.
As Koryu starts putting a few pieces of the puzzle together she ties everything in to a smuggling operation, led by Kazunari Osone (Hideo Murata), that uses Chinese hookers to bring the diamonds in and out for them (Their modus operandi? Smuggling the jewels up their rumps!). This time around, however, there's a catch that means Koryu will have to tread very carefully. It seems that her sister, Bykakuran (Tamayo Mitsukawa), has somehow gotten herself mixed up with these dangerous men and that her life could very well be in serious danger if Koryu makes a wrong move.
As with the first film, things start in Hong Kong before quickly moving across the ocean to Japanese soil. You can more or less replace the Koryu's brother in the first movie with her sister in this second film and the drug smuggling ring with the diamond smuggling ring as that's what the filmmakers did. That being said, even if it's insanely derivative of the first movie it's still a lot of fun thanks primarily to Shihomi's screen presence and fighting skills. She takes on a guy with a parrot on his shoulder and a few other colorful characters before the end credits hit the screen and if this is the weakest entry in the series, it's still quite enjoyable as long as you don't expect much originality out of it. The action is constant and appears here in place of a real story, but if you've got to replace your story doing it by stylishly having a cute girl kick the snot out of wacky bad guys is probably the best way to do it.
The Return Of Sister Street Fighter (1975):
Yamaguchi and Shihomi got together to bring Koryu to the screen one last time. The first two films did well enough that Toei wasn't going to let the franchise die that easily, though some of the same problems that plagued the first film are here in the second one as well (but so are the good qualities).
In Hong Kong, Detective Cho (Jiro Chiba, Sonny's younger brother) has asked Koryu if she'll help him out and escort his niece, Rika, back to Yokohama in Japan and help her find her missing mother. Koryu agrees and shortly after, Cho is stabbed to death. It seems that Rika's mother, whose name is Shurei, has gotten herself involved with Oh Ryu Mei (Rinichi Yamamoto) who rules the underworld of China Town with an iron fist - Oh Ryu has ties to a large corporation and he uses these connections to smuggle gold.
Koryu and Rika arrive and soon enough, Koryu starts snooping around. She talks to a few of the right people and gets in a couple of skirmishes along the way but inevitably finds her way to a lady of the evening named Suzy Wong. Ms. Wong works in one of Oh Ryu's nightclubs which is actually a front for a whorehouse and she's known for her rather considerable talents in this establishment. From there Koryu puts a few more clues together and tracks down Rika's aunt, Reika, who wants to know what happened to her sister as well. The ladies start pushing their way into Oh Ryu's criminal organization but soon Oh Ryu pulls out a few of the big guns and they find themselves in a tournament style fight to the death. Thankfully, an old friend of Karyu's named Michi (Michi Love) shows up and shows that her karate training has not been forgotten.
The whole thing is a lot of goofy, chaotic fun with fights every few minutes to help us forget that the story is treading eerily similar ground to what came before. As with the other two movies, there's plenty of violence and action in here and it all works quite well with Shihomi looking to be at the top of her game and now carrying herself extremely well in front of the camera. The movie doesn't deviate at all from the formula that made the first two movies work and it's all fairly redundant but entertaining in a brainless sort of way. This third film marked the last of the series, as the next entry would really more of a follow up than an actual sequel.
Sister Street Fighter: Fifth Level Fist (1976):
The only film in the series not directed by Kazuhiko Yamaguchi (instead directed by Shigehiro Ozawa of the three Street Fighter films) finds Etsuko Shihomi playing Kiku Nakagawa. She comes from a fairly wealthy family and her mother, quite the socialite, wants nothing more than for Kiku to grow up, get married to a nice, proper young man, and to become a proper Japanese woman. Kiku has other plans, however. Rather than do that or go into the family kimono making business, she wants to master the art of karate.
When not practicing her moves or dealing with her family, Kiku is hanging out with her pal Michi (Michi Love). They're fairly close so when Michi's half-brother, Jim (Ken Wallace), who happens to have a different father from his sister's, a black man, gets into trouble she takes it a little more personally than you might expect her to. It seems that Jim has always wanted to go into business for himself and open up his own restaurant but he has always lacked the funds to make that happen. In order to make his one and only dream come true, he resorts to working for a drug smuggler as a killer for hire! This drug smuggling operation is run out of a movie studio, where the bigwigs in power are shipping smack off to the good old U.S. of A. by way of some hidden compartments in Buddha statues. Their reasoning? The film industry just isn't what it used to be, and this is an easy way to make up for declining revenues.
With the plot set up and a friend in trouble, Kiku sets out to use her karate skills to save the day with a little help from Suji Takagi (Tsunehiko Watase), a detective with a rather primitive view of the fairer sex. Together they punch and kick their way through the drug smuggling ring but the closer they get to its core the more dangerous things become.
While it has a lot more intentional humor in it than the three proper Sister Street Fighter films, Fifth Level Fist still has a lot in common as far as its content. Thankfully the humor works well alongside the fantastic action scenes and Shihomi proves to be quite adept at handling the serious material as well as the more comedic bits. The exploitative bits that are scattered throughout the first three films, the nudity and excessive violence, aren't as prominent here but the martial arts scenes are handled just as well as they were before. This isn't as strong as the three films that came before it, but it's still an entertaining and sometimes trashy little movie that Etsuko Shihomi fans will definitely enjoy.
Overall, if one is able to appreciate the movies in this collection for what they are, cheaply made exploitation/martial arts hybrids, there's a whole lot of fun to be had with this material. Sure, they all follow a formula to a great extent but that can be said about a lot of different movies in a lot of different genres and so it has to be expected at least to a certain extent. The end result here is that even the weaker entries are still entertaining and still worth watching and the first two movies are genuinely well done even with the noted flaws. It's a shame that Shihomi's career was put into self-inflicted exile when it was, as she was still relatively young when she called it quits and could have easily churned out a few more movies without any problems. Instead she's left an interesting legacy behind, one that is shorter than it could have been or should have been but which is never the less an enjoyable one to explore, and this set makes a great starting point to do just that.
Both versions of the first film and the extras are included on the first disc, a BD50, while the three sequels are included on the second 50GB Blu-ray disc. Each transfer is presented in its proper 2.35.1 aspect ratio in AVC encoded 1080p high definition. Arrow doesn't offer much information as to the sources used for these transfers, only that they were provided to them by Toie. Generally speaking, the transfers here are pretty nice. Colors look good and we get pretty solid black levels too, though occasionally they can look a little closer to dark grey. Detail and texture handily rise above previous DVD editions, there's better depth here as well. There are no noticeable problems with any noise reduction or edge enhancement nor are there any compression artifacts to complain about. Contrast also looks good. Solid presentations through and through.
Original uncompressed Japanese audio is provided for all four films in LPCM Mono format with optional English subtitles. Clarity is fine and the tracks are properly balanced. You might hear some occasional sibilance now and then but otherwise, no complaints. Dialogue is clear, the sound effects hit hard and the scores for the four films all sound strong and tight.
The first film also includes the original English dubbed audio, also in LPCM Mono format, which comes complete with English SDH subtitles. The film plays better in Japanese but it's great that Arrow included this option for those of us who first saw the film dubbed into English and who are, for better or worse, a bit nostalgic for it.
The main extra, found on the first disc, is a series of new video interviews, the first of which is with actor Shinichi "Sonny" Chiba. He speaks here for ten-minutes about his work on the picture, the rise of the Japan Action Club, working alongside Shiomi and the training that she underwent even before getting in front of the camera. From there, director Kazuhiko Yamaguchi is interviewed for ten-minutes where he talks about the influence of Angela Mao and how she was originally intended to play the lead, working with Chiba and Shiomi, his thoughts on working with Toei and how he feels about the feature years since it was made. After that, screenwriter Masahiro Kakefuda gets his turn to speak for eleven minutes about working with Norifumi Suzuki, his work at Toei, some influences that worked their way into the story and his thoughts on the film overall. All three of these are pretty interesting.
We also get a still gallery and isolated score highlights for the first three films. Aside from that, Arrow has also included original Japanese theatrical trailers for all four films, original U.S. and German theatrical trailers for Sister Street Fighter, plus original English and German opening titles for Sister Street Fighter. Menus and chapter selection are also provided on both discs in the set.
As far as the packaging goes, Arrow has also included reversible cover sleeve art featuring original poster artwork on one side and newly commissioned artwork by Kungfu Bob O'Brien. The same artwork by O'Brien is also featured on the included slipcover. Included inside alongside the two disc is a full color insert booklet that contains credits for the four films and for the Blu-ray release as well as an essay on the series by Patrick Macias and a new essay on the history of the North American releases of Toei's karate films by Chris Poggiali.
The Sister Street Fighter Collection offers plenty of top-notch action and exploitation! The first film is the best of the bunch but the sequels are all worthwhile and plenty entertaining as well. Arrow has done a nice job bringing these to Blu-ray, with solid transfers and a decent array of extra features. Highly recommended!