2017/10/26 What's On
The Street Fighter and the legacy of 1970’s Martial Arts Cinema
by Ben Lindstrom-Ives
The Street Fighter is a classic Japanese Karate/Martial Arts film made in 1974 by Shigehiro Ozawa. The film’s original title in Japanese was Gekitotsu or Satsujin Ken, which translates roughly to Killer Fists. The Street Fighter was released in the mid 1970’s during which time many Martial Arts films were being produced throughout Asia. In Hong Kong in particular, notable film producers such as Raymond Chow and Run Run Shaw with their Golden Harvest Studios company, were producing many classic King Fu movies at the time. They most notably became well known as the producers of the film’s of Bruce Lee, a famous Martial Arts actor who would star in Kung Fu classics such as The Big Boss (1971), The Chinese Connection (1972), and Enter the Dragon (1973). Bruce Lee a much beloved star of Hong Kong action cinema would soon die at the young age of 33, of an unexpected heart failure in Hong Kong. Lee’s premature death would devastate many of his fans, along with the Martial Arts film market in Hong Kong. As Lee’s film career came to an abrupt end, across the Pacific in Japan another promising Martial Arts actor would soon emerge on the silver screen. That star’s name was Sonny Chiba.
Sonny Chiba in many ways embodies the Japanese Bruce Lee. Similarly to Bruce Lee, Chiba would perform many of his own stunts, and choreographed some rather remarkable Karate skills as exemplified by his famous Street Fighter film series. These films were made between 1974 and 1979. Chiba similarly to Bruce Lee would often add bits of humor to his films, as he often would make exaggerated vocal movements if not scream, at the moment before he delivered maximum damage to his opponents!!! The Street Fighter would be released by Toei studios in Japan in 1974, and would be released in the same year in the United States. When the Street Fighter was released in the States, it would be dubbed into English. When the film came out, it caused quite a sensation as it became the first film to be rated X solely for its violence. For a low budget film, it nonetheless did strike a large chord with international audiences, and did become a big hit.
The Street Fighter does indeed have a very low budget look when you watch it today. Characterized by rather saturated colors, along with a funky 1970’s film soundtrack, and rather poor dubbing, the Street Fighter is without a doubt an authentic cultural product of its era. The plot of the Street Fighter concerns a tough and bold mercenary named Terry Tsurugi, played by Sonny Chiba. In the framework of the story itself, Terry is asked by the local Yamaguchi clan in Tokyo, to accept a certain sum of money for agreeing to kidnap the daughter of a powerful oil magnate who was recently murdered in Cairo on a business trip. When the mafia refuse to accept Terry’s high price, they try to assassinate Terry, so that they can conceal their secret plans. Nonetheless as a response, Terry agrees to protect the daughter instead, fighting his way through the grimy streets of Tokyo, to take revenge against the local Yakuza who double crossed and betrayed him.
Ozawa’s Street Fighter is certainly without a doubt probably the most violent Martial Arts film which I have ever seen. Terry’s fights against his opponents always result in plentiful carnage throughout the film. In one infamous scene Chiba smashes a Yakuza member’s skull with his bare fist, and the footage can be seen in x ray film!!!! This scene evidently was crafted by Chiba himself, who thought that this would add to the notoriety and intrigue of the film itself. There is very little in the way of developed plot in the Street Fighter and the film itself relies heavily on violence, and martial arts choreography. It is nonetheless quite memorable, and it is an influential film in the Martial Arts genre. The Street Fighter itself lacks the grace and style of a Bruce Lee film such as Enter the Dragon (1973) and the Big Boss (1971), but it is still interesting to watch.
The Street Fighter has influenced the work of filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino, Tony Scott, Steven Seagal, amongst others. In Tony Scott’s film True Romance (1993) with a script written by Quentin Tarantino, the two protagonists of the story Clarence and Alabama Worley are seen attending a Street Fighter Marathon at a Detroit cinema. In Quentin Tarantino’s fabulous Kill Bill Volume 1, Sonny Chiba makes a short but notable role as the old sword maker in Okinawa, who gives a Kitana (A traditional Japanese sword) to the ‘Bride’ played by Uma Thurman, who seeks revenge against a team of assassins who tried to kill her, and her unborn child.
In the end, I would probably give Sonny Chiba’s The Street Fighter a 3 out of 4 stars. It is not a great film, but it is at the same time very entertaining, and a must see for anyone who is interested or who really likes Martial Arts cinema. This film along with the other Martial Arts films of the time helped ‘popularize’ an interest of Martial Arts in the west, and has perhaps made Karate and Japanese Martial Arts cinema and techniques even more famous outside of Japan. For these reasons, this film is certainly worth a look at. You might also view Quentin Tarantino’s films differently, after you watch the Street Fighter film or films series. Check it out!
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