Judge Bill Gibron wishes he could glower like Japan's premiere '70s/'80s action icon. Unfortunately, he can barely squint like Clint.
More than a Street Fighter!
In the first of an action-packed double feature, Sinichi "Sonny" Chiba is a karate instructor named Kazumo, who wants the lead instructor position at Japan's prestigious martial arts school. Unfortunately, so does the ruthless and evil Nikaido. With the help of his henchmen, the bad guy cripples our hero and sends him packing to the United States. There, Kazumo trains his young daughter Yumi in the ways of differing kung fu skills. As she grows, she becomes a deadly weapon. Unfortunately, Kazumo doesn't live to see his child's return to Tokyo. There, Nikaido has become the corrupt ruler of all karate. Using his political connections and institution of trained thugs, he eradicates all competition and threats. When he learns that Yumi is back, he vows to cripple her. He sets up a special tournament, hoping she will enter. There, in front of everyone, he will kill her and end the longstanding vendetta. But Yumi is too smart to fall for such an ambush. Instead, with the help of disgruntled student Masahiko, she will lure Nikaido out into the open. There, Sonny Chiba's Dragon Princess will end his reign of terror once and for all.
Next, mercenary Chico (Sonny Chiba) wanders into a gang war between rival brothers. Both served under a sainted mobster, but when he was killed, his horrid henchman took over. Jailed for murder—as well as the smuggling of millions of dollars in undiscovered heroin—the sinister siblings have since split the territory and have been warring over the local turf. Both share a brothel madam as a girlfriend, and she constantly double-crosses them in a bold attempt the secure the heroin for herself. When Chico stumbles upon a lonely boy near a fishing wharf, he assumes he's an orphan. Turns out his father is a samurai, holding up the tradition of the famed swordsmen while avoiding involvement in the violence. Unfortunately, he is given no choice by one of the crime bosses, and soon he is murdering men for money. Chico decides to turn everyone against each other, and concocts schemes and strategies to undermine the criminals and save the dope for himself. Of course, it all ends up in a series of Yojimbo-like confrontations where friend battles foe, rival attacks traitor, and a small child learns the hard lessons of life as a Karate Warrior.
Representing the high point (Warriors) and the slow descent (Princess) of Chiba's time in the international limelight, this Welcome to the Grindhouse presentation is nothing but nonstop butt-whooping. Our hunky antihero, smoldering like the embers of a homecoming bonfire and channeling his considered cool into a completely cavalier collection of rapid-fire roundhouse kicks and un-pulled punches, only gets one real showcase for his special skills, but it's as dandy as chocolate-covered crack candy. Karate Warriors, like most of Chiba's '70s output, is a slam-dunk slice of exploitation sleaze. With its rampant nudity, massive bloodletting, and "violence as the answer to everything" attitude, you get your recommended daily dose of goofball gratuity—and then some. This is the kind of film where a small frail boy is used as a human shield (that is, when he's not getting his booty kicked by kindergarteners) and Chiba's sexual prowess turns hookers' hearts into actual gold. As always, our superstar is nothing but net, a performer so potent that he's like cinematic Viagra. Even the most erectile dysfunctional will achieve potency watching him beat the ever-lovin' snot out of underhanded bullies and smug assassins.
Sadly, Chiba steps out early in the '80s effort Dragon Princess. Within 15 minutes of the movie's marginal running time (it barely makes it to 80, and that's with an inserted naked dance number), Mr. Machismo is wounded, partially blind, bitter, and headed toward that big grudge temple in the sky. This leaves the amazing female fighter Etsuko Shihomi to carry the rest of the narrative, and she papooses the mofo brilliantly. As Chiba's man musk fades away, this glam-gal ass-kicker meters out personal punishment and takes no friggin' prisoners. Along the way, we meet a long-haired bum who befriends the beauty (and who calls on her to help with a local band of thugs) and we get to know the ins and outs of Nikaido's crooked racket. The theme of the film is centered on a single word: karate. Chiba makes his child swear to avenge the honor and dignity of the martial art, and our villain swears that by winning the planned tournament, he can make a mint with the talent. Apparently, there is more to this kung fu biz other than fighting. Thanks to Shihomi's amazing stuntwork and acumen, and the totally over-the-top nature of Nikaido's henchmen (one resembles an albino heavy metal fan with a muscular disorder), we get fisticuffs at their most freaked out and fun.
Together with a collection of old-school trailers, theatrical title cards and other retro grindhouse gimmicks, Sonny Chiba's Dragon Princess/Karate Warriors makes a standout chop-socky couplet. After the first film lulls you into a sense of ditzy dojo complacency, the Charlie Chaplin chin music of the follow-up will make you warm and wanton all over. If you've never seen the amazing Japanese icon and his body of ball-busting work, you could do a lot worse than to start your Endo education with this double ham-fisted title. Of the two, Warriors is the more complete film, while Princess provides more impressive hinder waxing. While Warriors has a weird directorial approach (there is an amazing sequence where Chiba goes ballistic on some bad guys in a slow-motion foot-to-face ballet), the stylistic swagger definitely adds to the appeal. Similarly, Princess is all odd angles, weird edits, and frequently flummoxing character motivation. It wasn't so much helmed and hemmed in. Unless you grew up in the era when the latest Chiba epic would make its way to a skuzzy inner-city theater for a limited engagement, DVD has been the savior of Chiba's legacy. These two fascinating films are perfect examples of his enduring mythos.
From the standpoint of distributor BCI Eclipse, this is a real pro/con release. On the plus side, the company offers both films in their original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The anamorphic widescreen presentation does have a plethora of problems, though. Princess sees the colors fade on occasion, especially during a last-act battle between Yumi and Nikaido's goons. In other instances, the print looks old but acceptable. In the case of Warriors, things are a little better. Again, OAR is maintained, and the 16x9 element is a home-theater must. During the fight scenes, you can tell where moments of gore have been reinserted into the picture. While sloppily edited back in, it's nice to have the material included. Sadly, all sound presented here is Dolby Digital Mono—and it's offered in an English-only dub. Sure, it plays into the nostalgic atmosphere of this presentation, but the least one could ask for is the original Japanese language tracks. It would be very interesting to hear Chiba's real voice, and to experience the other actors as they perform in their native tongue. As for extras, the only added content centers around something called "The Grindhouse Experience." Punch this up on your menu and you'll get some "prevues," an animated title card or two, and a between-film intermission with more of this material. It's an intriguing if only slightly satisfying bonus.
Besides, who needs fancy-schmantzy supplements when you've got Chiba. While Dragon Princess doesn't represent our action Atlas at his prime, Karate Warriors is a work of antisocial art. Nobody did it better—or brasher—than Sonny Chiba. This pairing of Tokyo toughness is all the proof one needs. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Deimos Entertainment
• "The Grindhouse Experience" double feature option
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