Antihero for Hire: The Street Fighter Trilogy
1974 was a year which further defined the age of the Antihero in pop culture, where a fictional protagonist takes extreme measures outside of the idealistic convention to reach his or her objective.
After the unfortunate and unforeseen passing of martial arts legend Bruce Lee in 1973, there was really no one who could take his place.
However, the following year, entered the "Tiger"!
His name was Sadaho Maeda internationally referred to as "Sonny Chiba!"
Chiba's career started from two tokusatsu superhero shows shot in Japan.
And while many are quick to familiarize his work as retired swordsman Hanzo from Kill Bill, it was 1974's The Street Fighter that made the Martial Artist and actor a household name outside of Japan during the Kung Fu craze, which Bruce Lee helped to gain pop culture status around the World. In the first of the three-part martial arts Crime Drama, Chiba plays Takuma Tsurugi, written in the U.S. as Terry Sugury who is an immoral martial arts expert and professional mercenary for hire.
Despite his Rogue like persona,Takuma at times, is shown having a code of honor when he refuses to work under crime syndicates such as the Yakuza. At the start of film, Tsurugi poses as a Monk to perform a "hit" on a condemned murderer Tateki Shikenbaru who is sentenced to death by hanging. After a breif exchange, Tsurugi applies some fakeout technique "oxygen coma punch" to Shikenbaru, causing him to collapse prior to his scheduled execution which of course, was halted as Tateki was enroute to a hospital, intercepted by Tsurugi and his half-witted partner Rakuda.
With his task accomplished, Tsurugi will be handsomely rewarded for his rescue op, right? Oh, wait...
When Shikenbaru's brother Gijun and sister Nachi arrive and plead for more time to pay for Tsurugi's assistance unfortunately for them, Tsurugi isn't your charitable idealistic good guy, he's Honorable to a fault and until you don't uphold your end of the bargain.
Tsurugi's actions not only caused Gijun's death but also his sister being sold as "collateral “to underworld crime boss Renzo Mutaguchi who makes a proposition to kidnap Sarai, the heiress of a recently deceased oil tycoon but realizing that Renzo is backed by the Yakuza, Tsurugi turns down the offer and is marked for death.
Chiba's biggest movie debut is one of the better action films from Japan during the early Seventies, while the story may be simplistic, it’s never a dull moment when you have Tsurugi constantly faced with danger from Renzo and the Yakuza who recruits Tateki and his sister to kill Tsurugi which leads to a final showdown. Despite its controversial depictions of violence, The Street Fighter is another forerunner of action movies where the bad guy is the “Good guy” with the late Sonny Chiba as a one-man army kicking or punching the shit out of those who either try to kill him or get in his way without care or concern. However, there were moments where we get into the psyche of our Antihero protagonist i.e. flashback sequence of bearing witness of his father's execution for marrying a Chinese woman, which explains why he is the way he is and serves as his motivation for overcoming the odds.
Also of note, was Rakuda's redemption during Tsurugi's fight against a Zatoichi type assassin where he tries to save him only to get struck down followed by a touching follow up with Tsurugi mourning the loss of his best friend, after shunning him. Although he lacked the fluidity and expertise of Bruce Lee, it was his Chiba's Streetfighter that differentiated him from your archetypical Chopsocky actors who were often associated as heroic or those who were wronged, now seeking revenge. Sonny at times, displays exaggerated albeit comical facial expressions that had me laughing as if the movie was embracing the camp.
Aside from the silly tropes, “The Street Fighter, “was perhaps the first action movie released in the U.S. by New Line Cinema that received an X rating no, not for explicit sexual content, but instead its violence and limited gore, so yes, it's a very violent movie especially as far as the original Japanese cut, is concerned, which contained brutal violence scenes such as eye gouging, throat ripping and even a crazed rapist getting his genitals pulled out and well deserved.
It is of note, that Sonny Chiba appeared in four Street Fighter films, which included Spinoff and Sister Street Fighter. As for his accommodations, he held several black belts in the following martial arts:
Kyokushin Karate: 4th Dan
Ninjutsu: 4th Dan
Goju-ryu karate: 2nd Dan
Shorinji Kempo: 2nd Dan
Judo: 2nd Dan
Kendo: 1st Dan
Director Quentin Tarantino, who is a huge fan of Sonny Chiba once claimed that he is "better than Bruce Lee."
Now that is high praise!
In the follow up of the first film, Chiba is back in the appropriately named Return of the Street Fighter.
This time Tsurugi has a new partner in crime, Pi Boke, who is more annoying than Rakuda even as a comedy relief, but things get serious when the Yakuza boss gives Takuma the order to kill his protégé and Saari’s uncle, Masaoka who sees his karate school as a direct competition with a school favored by the Yakuza. Takuma being Takuma, refuses to comply with the Japanese Mafia, and now a bounty has been placed on his head.
Unfortunately, this sequel fails to measure up to the first film and its courtesy of lengthy dialog, choppy editing, which includes pacing issues to fulfill the film’s runtime quota, like those regurgitated flashback sequences, and extended martial arts training montages. As a matter of fact, with the plot contrivance, the whole movie is practically a montage when you have Tsurugi get into one fight after another. That said, the highlight of "Return" is the well-choreographed Sauna fight scene followed by an all-out assault on a heavily guarded Mafia stronghold. Then of course, there’s that one big reveal which ties the narrative from both films. It's amusing to see how Tsurugi's actions cause collateral damage without him batting an eye as the finale more than shows.
In the third and final installment titled, The Streetfighter's Last Revenge, Tsurugi goes in disguise to apprehend a Mafia associate who happens to be related to a powerful crime boss, but when he's double crossed, our Antihero confiscates a tape which contains incriminating recordings of bribes paid to the government by a chemical company. The Yakuza are trying to blackmail the company, that could expose the criminal syndicate. So, as a means of getting the tape back and getting rid of Takuma, they send in an assassin with supernatural powers- Mr. Black!
While this sequel almost plays out like a Manga and while not necessarily a paint by the numbers story, it has familiar outcomes like a potential ally getting killed near the end, more double crosses, the femme Fatale archetype and then we go back for the third time of Takuma's tragic childhood (via stock footage) where he bears witness to his father's execution which is a major staple trope within the trilogy.
The fight scenes have slightly improved if not improvised and Sonny gives it his all, when it comes to throwing punches, kicks and a bit of acrobatics. He's not as agile as Jackie Chan, or methodical as Bruce, Chiba has more than enough "chops" to place him within the top ranks as the other Asian action icons of old. Not gonna lie, the film is somewhat disappointing compared to the first, or even the second, thanks to misplaced audio and weak color correction, “Revenge" is still a good sequel that somewhat closes out the franchise.
While Street Fighter's lore may seem somewhat outdated by today's standards of filmmaking and narrative, there is more than enough material to sink in, especially regarding the sociopolitical and industrial politics that served as a backdrop in Japan during that era. It’s unfortunate that Toei didn’t further market this franchise via developing other media expansions from Anine, videogames or dare I say it, a remake!
As far as influence goes, The Street Fighter had a huge influence on popular culture. As a homage, Capcom’s iconic videogame franchise "Street Fighter" was named after the movie series, while the current Mortal Kombat games utilized the x-ray effect.
In the movie The Last Dragon (1985), Taimak's character Leroy Green would wear an espionage outfit that is the exact same black gi that Takuma Tsurugi/Terry Sugury dons. Not bad for an obscure cult classic. Despite minor gripes there is still plenty of enjoyment to be had. Whether you're a fan of ol school martial art films or Asian action in general, you can't go wrong with The Streetfighter Trilogy.