Sunday, April 15, 2007
THE SISTER STREETFIGHTER SERIES (1974-1976)
If you ever need to cite a film series that absolutely adheres to the theory of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” look no further than the first three of Toei Studios’ four ONNA HISSATSU-KEN (“Killing Fist Woman”) flicks, the first of which saw release in the West as SISTER STREET FIGHTER.
Having nothing whatsoever to do with my man Sonny Chiba’s superlative THE STREET FIGHTER (1974), the importers sought to fool the chopsocky-hungry into thinking ONNA HISSATSU-KEN (also 1974) was part of a sister series by slapping the STREET FIGHTER name on it and playing up Chiba’s presence in the film despite the fact that he’s in it for maybe ten minutes. Such chicanery notwithstanding, SISTER STREET FIGHTER is a total blast from start to finish and sports one of the classic examples of hilariously ludicrous dubbed karate flick dialogue.
The story follows the adventures of Koryu Lee (Etsuko “Sue” Shihomi), a half-Chinese practitioner of Shorinji-kenpo, and her quest to find her missing undercover cop brother who has been captured by a bunch of Yakuza assholes. Koryu heads to Japan and not five minutes after the opening credits we are treated to the first of many hardcore ass-kickings handed out by our heroine against a restaurant full of creeps.
In two seconds these guys will have the living shit soundly kicked out of them.
From then on it’s non-stop — and I do mean NON-STOP — violence and carnage as Koryu screams, kicks and bashes her way across the Land of the Rising Sun, with the action slowing down only for the brief moments necessary to provide a character’s name or display topless junkie strippers writhing about and screeching, “Heroin! Heroin! I must have my heroin!” No joke, there are even fights during the expository scenes, for fuck’s sake!
During the course of all this madness it quickly becomes apparent that the film takes place in one of those movie worlds where the police exist in name only and everybody and their grandma knows karate. The main bad guy actually collects martial artists who spend most of their time hanging around his swimming pool and showing off their signature moves (each helpfully identified by subtitles) when not squabbling amongst themselves, a gang of guys run around with wicker baskets over their heads for no apparent reason,
Thai kickboxer chicks in Fred Flintstone outfits (???) with paper bags over their heads with no explanation,
a shirtless assassin decked out with a Mohawk, cape and wrasslin’ hose to accent his blowgun and shield, and there’s even a jaw-dropping bit when the basket-heads invade a ballet studio and have their asses handed to them by the head ballerina — in tights, no less — who just happens to be a master of Ryukyu Kojoryu Karate (a bit of info provided by subtitles during a shot of the petite dancer throwing some guy like he was an empty bag of potato chips).
By the time the “story” reaches its climax, Koryu’s brother is killed, thereby upping the ante into tried-and-true revenge cliché territory, and she must take on the main baddie, giving both of them the opportunity to display their hitherto unseen ability to fly through the air and float there during combat. Throw in aid from another cute karate chick, bolstered by the utterly gratuitous appearances by Sonny Chiba and Masashi “Milton” Ishibashi, forever infamous as Junjo from (you guessed it) THE STREET FIGHTER and RETURN OF THE STREET FIGHTER, topped off with a guy getting a sai shoved through his skull (horrible crunch noise included),
and you have a fast paced, logic-and-sanity-bending spectacle that will delight young and old alike with it’s “I don’t give a fuck” attitude. And while the violence is nowhere near as over-the-top as that on display in the rated-X-for-violence THE STREET FIGHTER, SISTER STREET FIGHTER acquits itself quite admirably, including five shorn minutes of gore and violence restored to the recently released uncut DVD, such as a great bit where Koryu twists a guy’s head one-hundred and eighty degrees, and his broken-necked corpse staggers backwards down a flight of stairs, oozing blood from the mouth and staring at the other Yakuza scumbags in the room before falling over.
Giving new meaning to the phrase “quickie sequel,” SISTER STREET FIGHTER: HANGING BY A THREAD hit the screen a mere four months after the original and it’s pretty much a remake of the first one, right down to having virtually the same cast as more or less the same characters, only with a lot more kinky sex and sadistic violence. This time out, Koryu leaves Hong Kong for Japan in search of some guy’s daughter who’s been kidnapped and discovers the girl has been sold into prostitution, addicted to heroin, and used as a mule for diamond smuggling by having the jewels surgically implanted in her ass cheeks.
Our heroine’s investigation brings her into contact with her long-unseen sister, an expert jeweler who doubles as a cutter for the Yakuza and horribly degraded mistress to the sleazy-as-all-fuck villain, another Mr. Big type who collects martial artists as a hobby. The sumbitch even has a training facility that would have been right at home on S.P.E.C.T.R.E. Island in FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE (my vote for the best James Bond movie ever made, BTW), complete with a small army of karate assholes, the worst among whom are the heinous Honiden brothers, a trio of martially-skilled sociopaths lead by Masashi Ishibashi in a role that is impossible to distinguish from his deceased character in the previous movie. There’s even a cocky thug-for-hire played by the awesome Yasuaki “Shoji” Kurata, veteran of more samurai and HK Shaw Brothers kung fu epics than I can count (perhaps most notably the Shaw Brothers 1978 classic HEROES OF THE EAST, aka SHAOLIN CHALLENGES NINJA), and while he whores himself out to the bad guys, he’s actually the brother of a cop who gets murdered at the beginning of the film and eventually teams up with our heroine.
The villains repeatedly attempt — and fail — to kill Koryu, and things just escalate to an insane degree, so much so that I, a man who’s endured at least three hundred martial arts films, got a headache. Don’t get me wrong; I had a great time watching the flick’s exquisitely-choreographed, ultra-violent carnage, but once Koryu’s sister betrays the boss and gets her eyes graphically gouged out for her efforts, and both she and the kidnapped girl get sadistically murdered, the film ceased to be good, sleazy fun and I found myself waiting for it all to end. That malaise wasn’t helped by the fact that the film apes its predecessor so mercilessly that I felt like I was stuck in an endless loop of SISTER STREET FIGHTER with some extra violence shoehorned into it, and most of the crazed exuberance taken out. If not for its cloned nature, SISTER STREET FIGHTER: HANGING BY A THREAD could have stood on its own as a competent thriller, but as is it’s just okay.
The third entry, RETURN OF THE SISTER STREET FIGHTER, was unleashed barely eight months after the last outing and once again the filmmakers more or less remade the first one, this time with the added twist of ripping off many tropes from ENTER THE DRAGON, most notably the villain with an artificial hand/weapon. Koryu sets out from Hong Kong to once more kick ass in Japan, her righteous fury this time directed against another Yakuza and his collection of badasses who have kidnapped her cousin and forced the woman to use her scientific knowledge in aid of their scheme to control the world’s gold economy (don’t ask, it makes no fucking sense). Yasuaki Kurata is also on hand again as pretty much the same guy he played previously, but Masashi Ishibashi shakes things up by ditching his persona from the previous two installments — to say nothing of THE STREET FIGHTER and RETURN OF THE STREET FIGHTER — and going for some skin dye and a pimp suit with a collapsible steel whip.
I don’t know if he’s supposed to be Black or Hispanic or what, but he sure as shit looks like a complete idiot.
And bad though that may be, there’s even a Japanese actor in head-to-toe blackface as an African warrior, complete with oogah-boogah over-the-shoulder leopard skin, animal hide shield and a big, honkin’ spear. I’ll spare you any further details because it’s just another trip down a well-traveled road, but I’ll let it suffice to say that the third installment suffers from the same “been there, done that” cloneness of number two, and just like the previous film it would have been just fine if the first movie didn’t exist.
I guess the filmmakers figured they’d milked the cookie cutter adventures of Koryu Lee for about all they were worth, so when 1976’s SISTER STREET FIGHTER: FIFTH LEVEL FIST came out, it was a sequel in name only, having squat to do with the previous three. Etsuko Shihomi is back, but this time she’s Kiku, an unmarried girly girl whose kimono salesman dad is desperate to see her married off, but since she’s a badassed karate instructor she’s not interested in matrimony (hey, unlike Koryu, at least this chick has a job, rather than just inexplicably wandering from ass-kicking to ass-kicking!). The plot, such as it is, once more involves drug smuggling and by this point I could not care less; the virtually action-free plot not only moves slowly, but also “treats” us to several unwanted musical numbers and attempts at comedy. Kiku has a cute friend named Michi (the half-Yank, half-Japanese Michi Love) who lives with her Black half-brother Jim (Hen Wallace), both orphans from Okinawa who share a Japanese mother and weathered the intolerance of cruel locals so their sibling bond is built on mutual suffering. Unbeknownst to Michi, Jim works as muscle for drug smugglers, and when he is killed she has an excuse to seek revenge but of course gets captured, prompting Kiku to finally get off her kimonoed ass and fight, by which point the flick has been running for a full hour and the wait just isn’t worth it. The rest of the running time drags on interminably, even when the fists and feet are bashing the shit out of everyone and everything in sight, so the final film in the series is a hugely disappointing washout. I guess someone tried to broaden the series’ appeal by softening Shihomi’s persona and introducing tear-jerking melodrama, but you usually can’t have it both ways in martial arts movies, so they should either have gone for a straight up festival of violence, or given Michi and Jim their own separate weepy (which would definitely have been more interesting than this film).
The glue holding all of these films together was star Etsuko Shihomi, a protégé of Sonny Chiba’s, and inarguably the most hardcore of the female asskickers to grace the Japanese cinema. Her every move was both visually captivating and savage, plus she was very easy on the eyes, reminding me of a Japanese Mariska Hargitay. I mean, look at those eyes:
Jesus H. Christ! The only Asian ass-kicking gal from the Good Old Days who comes close is the gorgeous Hui Ying-Hung, but that’s fodder for another article…
Sadly, like some other martial arts movie goddesses — most notably, her contemporary Angela Mao Ying — Shihomi got married in 1987 and has become more or less a recluse, retiring from show biz altogether and shunning the spotlight, including even granting interviews. Too fucking bad for us fans, because her like will never be seen again.
So, the bottom line: if you see any of these flicks, stick with the vastly entertaining first installment. If you mess with the rest of them, especially the last one, it’s on your own head. Hey, man, I suffer so you don’t have to.
TRUST YER BUNCHE!!!