[THE STREET FIGHTER (1974)]
Cinema lets us enter a new world. When we get off that ferry with Bruce Lee and his uncle in The Big Boss, we are entering the world of Hong Kong fighting. There’s something about that green suitcase which Uncle Lu totes along the gangplank which makes the whole thing believable. That cheap green suitcase. It is sad somehow. A day’s change of clothes, perhaps. There is something so humble about the mise-en-scène to indicate that we are not in Kansas anymore.
Our eyebrows raise as the opening credits roll on this excellent Sonny Chiba flick. Japan! The wah-wah guitar beckons us into a world which no longer exists–a place in history. But we are fortunate that Sonny Chiba lives! He is 76 years old. What an impression he makes in The Street Fighter!
It is not completely clear early in this film what is going on. In fact, there are several times when the storytelling becomes a bit convoluted. Don’t misunderstand: this isn’t a complex film. But somehow, the storytelling is very…different.
We remember Christian Slater at the beginning of True Romance when he unsuccessfully tried to pick up a girl at a bar…
Girl: You want to take me to a kung fu movie?!?
Slater: Three…kung fu movies.
Yes. I’ve taken a couple of jabs at Tarantino on my site. Perhaps I’ve been too harsh. I mean, maybe Quentin has it all figured out. No doubt the masters like Godard were initially impelled and instructed by the likes of B-movies, gangster films, pulp…from Nicholas Ray to Samuel Fuller. Silly me…I thought QT grew up in Knoxville, but that isn’t quite right. That said, his upbringing sounds about as shitty as I imagined…just transposed to various urban sprawl appendages of Los Angeles.
And so, from “one inch punch” to “oxygen coma punch” we dovetail into Chiba’s oeuvre.
Nothing about the beginning of this film foreshadows the touching moment late in the film when Ratnose (Chiba’s sidekick) finally gets his friend’s attention. This subplot between Terry Tsurugi and Ratnose is really remarkable…almost a Clouseau/Cato dynamic early on, which proceeds into a harrowing/endearing funnel of climax.
Yeah, Slater was right: Chiba is a rough customer. He’s hard to like. You have to stick with it. Slowly, his unique morality comes to the surface. Tsurugi is a damaged character, but the hardships he has experienced make him one of the toughest people on the planet.
Interestingly, Tsurugi’s rampages are in the context of big oil. Though it was 1974, we feel a palpable thrill as he deals with the dealers. It is still relevant. Consider this recent story, for instance:
Likewise, Chiba plays the role of an anti-mafia loner. In other words, this guy’s not afraid of anyone. Pretty powerful stuff!
Although Tsurugi doesn’t really have a way with women, his “beast” mode wins over the beauty Sarai (Yutaka Nakajima). Chiba is all action–very few words.
And if you think Bruce Lee makes strange sounds in his fights, Chiba takes the cake…perpetually clearing his sinuses while trying to self-induce a heart attack (or so it sounds). It is mondo bizarre!
Shigehiro Ozawa manages to make this a particularly artful film at times…especially the fight between Chiba and Masafumi Suzuki. The focus on fists bears a striking resemblance to the famous “gun” shot from Hitchcock’s Spellbound.
The Street Fighter diverges from Bruce Lee movies in that Chiba gets his ass kicked pretty severely throughout this movie. I suppose there is a proto-Rocky element here: Chiba is the guy who can roll with the punches.
Another couple of nods to Lee occur at the beginning and then much later in the film. Milton Ishibashi is made fun of by the prison guards who say something like “he must think he’s Bruce Lee.” More importantly, we later learn that Chiba’s character is half Japanese (hi Jad Fair). His father had tried to combine “Chinese boxing” and karate. This reminds us of Way of the Dragon…where the restaurant employees mock Lee’s “Chinese boxing” in sneering tones (until they see what it can do).
I won’t give away the bizarre ending, but suffice it to say that Junjo (Ishibashi) will be singing “Kumbaya” like Ned Gerblansky from here on out (if at all). Who’s ready for some pie?