Movies Till Dawn: Street Fighting Men and Women

The Street Fighter Collection” (1974, Shout! Select) Lunatic martial arts action trilogy starring grindhouse favorite Sonny Chiba (“Kill Bill”) as Tatsuma Surugi (Terry Surugy in the English dub), a gleefully malevolent killing machine who laid waste to both sides of the law in three gore-soaked features, all directed by Shigehiro Ozawa. Surugi fit perfectly into Toei Films’ stable of violent, amoral anti-heroes (see “Street Mobster” below): a short-tempered, sneering brawler who relished the opportunity to beat and main his opponents (or anyone within reach) with vicious, full-contact kyokushin karate (whose founder, Masutatsu Oyama, appears in the first two films). Those on the receiving end of his meathooks include Japanese yakuza and American Mafia; saturnine Masashi Ishibashi‘s Junjo, who gets his throat ripped out in the first film but returns for more in the second; various femme fatales and underworld flotsam (including killers dressed like mariachi), and the poor bastard whose skull is seen shattered in an “x-ray” shot (see cover art). Such over-the-top violence earned the first “Street Fighter” an X-rating (later trimmed to an R for American release) and deity status for Chiba among the drive-in faithful; Shout! Select’s three-disc set includes all three “Street Fighter” films (including “Return of the Street Fighter” and “Street Fighter’s Last Revenge,” which introduced Etsuko “Sue” Shiomi’s Sister Street Fighter – see below), all in either uncut form or with Japanese and American edits; “Street Fighter” also features a lengthy interview with Chiba and Jack Sholder (director of “The Hidden“) who edited the outrageous American “Street Fighter” trailer for New Line, while U.S. and Japanese trailers and promotional material are included with all three films.

The Sister Street Fighter Collection” (1974-1976, Arrow Video) A member of the Japan Action Club – Sonny Chiba’s training school for martial arts movie performers – Etsuko Shiomi earned her own showcase with the “Sister Street Fighter” trilogy, which is packaged along with an unofficial fourth film, “Sister Street Fighter – Fifth Level Fist” in Arrow’s two-disc set. Shiomi’s unflaggingly cheerful Li Koryu (called “Tina” in the English dub) is the polar opposite of Terry Surugy’s scowling gorilla, but hands out lethal beatdowns with the same degree of intensity. The first “Sister” film, in which Li must rescue her brother from a nefarious drug kingpin, essentially lays out the template for the three that follow: Li saves her older sister from smugglers in “Sister Street Fighter – Hanging By a Thread,” a cousin from a crime kingpin in “Return of the Sister Street Fighter” and a step-brother in “Fifth Level Fist.” If the plots are largely interchangeable and Toei’s penchant for ugly, exploitative treatment of female characters is in full bloom here, the negatives are outweighed by watching Shiomi (just 18 while making the first “Sister”) employ impressive Kendo skills against a array of outlandish villains (an all-female Thai fighting team in caveman skirts, a transvestite madam, Masashi Ishibashi’s self-pitying Hammerhead) and a brief appearance by Chiba. Kazukiho Yamaguchi, who helmed the three official “Sister” films, also grants the fight scenes a degree of energy (largely with handheld camerawork) that’s missing from the punch-and-smash set-ups in the “Streetfighter” films. Arrow’s Blu-ray set offers all four films on two discs, as well as a R-rated English-language version of the first “Sister” feature; interviews with Chiba, Yamaguchi and screenwriter Masahiro Kakefuda, as well as U.S. and international trailers and posters are also included.

Lady Street Fighter” (1978/1981, Arrow Video/American Film Genre Archive) Renee Harmon stalks the mean streets and weird scenes of Los Angeles in search of the hired killers that dispatched her lookalike sister, while “Beach Party” vet Jody McRae (billed as Joel McRae, Jr.) plays the frenemy card as a federal agent determined to both help and hinder her mission. “Lady Street Fighter” is largely the product of a single vision – that being writer/producer Harmon, a rare example of a female multi-hyphenate in low-budget genre film, and who sought to deliver a no-holds-barred action movie in spite of technical shortcomings. And while it succeeds in accomplishing aspects of that goal – car chases and shootouts are plentiful – “Lady Street Fighter” also serves up an reams of nonsensical dialogue, which are also rendered incomprehensible by Harmon’s German accent, as well as tangential sequences that go nowhere, atrocious special effects and an emphasis on crude/gross/baffling spectacle over logic and form. As a result, “Lady Street Fighter” is 72 minutes of non-stop bewilderment for devoted junkfilm fans; Arrow and AGFA’s Blu-ray offers commentary by director James Bryan (“Don’t Go in the Woods!”), as well as an unreleased, full-length sequel, “Revenge of the Lady Street Fighter,” which recycles whole sections of the previous movie, and fist-of-fury trailers for “The Muthers,” among others.

Street Mobster” (1972, Arrow Video) Japanese crime movie staple Bunta Sugawara, whose scowling mug resembles the Marvel mutant hero Colossus made flesh, stars in this violent and downbeat yakuza film from cult director Kinji Fukasawa (“Battle Royale”). Sugawara plays a street thug whose attempts to move up the organized crime ranks are constantly undone by his uncontrollable rage – the product, he claims, of being born on the same day that Japan surrenders to the Allies. The sixth and most successful entry in Fukasawa’s unrelated “Modern Outlaw” series, all starring Sugawara, “Mobster” offers bracing violence and the morbid rituals of respect and punishment of yakuza life, as well as Sugawara’s nuclear-strength performance; the relentless gloom (thematically and visually – the film takes place largely in darkness) and physical punishment of its characters, especially Mayumi Nagisa as Sugawara’s victim-turned-lover, eventually becomes exhausting, but fans of Fukasawa and screen yakuza should accept the challenge. And if they’re feeling particularly hardy, they can tackle Arrow’s Blu-ray of “Yakuza Law” (1969), a jaw-dropping chronicle of gruesome Mob retribution throughout the centuries by diehard iconoclast Teruo Ishii that plays like a hyper-stylized splatter film by Herschell Gordon Lewis.

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About Paul Gaita

Paul Gaita lives in Sherman Oaks, California with his lovely wife and daughter. He has written for The Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly, Variety and The Fix, among many other publications, and was a home video reviewer for Amazon.com from 1998 to 2014. He has interviewed countless entertainment figures from both the A and Z lists, but his favorites remain Elmore Leonard, Ray Bradbury and George Newall, who created both Schoolhouse Rock and the Hai Karate aftershave commercials. He once shared a Thanksgiving dinner with celebrity astrologer Joyce Jillson, and regrettably, still owes the late character actor Charles Napier a dollar.
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