Starring: Sonny Chiba, Yutaka Nakajima, Makoto Sato, Naoya Makoto, Sanae Kitabayashi, Akiko Mori, Hosei Komatsu, Tetsuro Tanba
Director: Norifumi Suzuki
Writer: Isao Matsumoto
Cinematographer: Yoshio Nakajima
Music: Shunsuke Kikuchi
Original Title: Shôrinji kenpô
Minor warning. This review contains adult themes.
As a teenager at school, out in the yard, talk would often drift to the ‘forbidden knowledge’ – essentially R-rated violence and pornography. Not that any of us were really exposed to it. One of the most revered topics under discussion was Caligula. Now I don’t know how many of my peers had actually seen Caligula; I am guessing that one or two may have, however it would not surprise me if none of them had. The story always retold was always the same one, so I get the impression that the story was almost a hand-me-down for those who wanted to project an image of being more extreme (and experienced) than their friends. I must admit I never saw Caligula until quite recently. I think I have told the story before — that when I watched it, I was suffering from a rather virulent dose of the flu and running a high fever. I had also promised to take my son to see the Revenge of the Sith on that weekend too. So I was hopped up on every medicine known to man fading in an out of coherency. To this day I am not too sure where Caligula ends and Sith begins. It lives in my mind as some violent porno mashup.
But back to the halcyon days of youth and the legend of Caligula. By legend, I of course mean the story that was told time and time again; and that story related to the sequence where Caligula cuts off the guys cock and then feeds it to the dogs. As you can imagine to a hormonal teenage boy — with optimistic dreams of many, many years of fine swordsmanship in front of him — the thought of having your cock cut off was just too abhorrent to contemplate. And furthermore, how dare the film-makers put such a sequence in a movie!
Of course, as bright-eyed and bushy tailed youngsters, we didn’t know who Sonny Chiba was, and therefore were certainly unaware of the existence of The Killing Machine, which was made in 1975 — or if you prefer 5 B.C. (Before Caligula). In The Killing Machine, Sonny Chiba plays Japanese Kenpo Karate master Doshin Soh, who, when he tangles with a local gangster who thinks with his little head, takes to cutting the man’s cock off and throwing it to the dogs.
However, despite my long-winded intro and talk of penile severance; and despite the film’s title The Killing Machine; and despite that this is a Chiba film made at the height of his violent, rib-shattering fame, this film is actually quite a moving and emotionally charged drama — but with, y’know, Chiba hitting and kicking people.
The film is the slightly fictionalized story of real life kenpo master Doshin Soh, and spans the years from 1945, at the end of the second World War, until what I’d guess is 1950, but it is never really specified. The thing with Soh is that he was trained in Shaolin Kung-Fu in China and is presented as having far superior martial arts skills than his fellow Japanese who have only studied karate or judo.
The film starts in 1945. The war is still raging, and Soh is a Japanese spy who has infiltrated a Chinese garrison. A mission briefing reveals to Soh that the Chinese are planning a big attack on a Japanese force arriving from Manchuria. However, before Soh can make off with the information, he is discovered and a fight breaks out. Soh’s solution is a simple one, and that is to kill everybody in the room. Forget the AK47 — ‘when you absolutely, positively have to kill every motherf*cker in the room’ — the perfect weapon is Sonny Chiba. After the carnage, Soh reports back to his superiors only to be told that Japan has unconditionally surrendered. The war is over. At that point Soh declares that ‘Japan may have lost the war, but he’ll never be defeated. Never!’
It’s a tough time for the Japanese after the war. They are victimised by the Chinese, the Koreans, the Russians and American occupational forces. It is almost like they are beggars in their own country. But Soh isn’t one to give in — and he does everything in his power to see that other Japanese citizens are able to survive, with a modicum of dignity. That’s actually one of the core themes of the film — national pride and standing by each other. Of course, there are Yakuza gangs who don’t live by Soh’s code and are more concerned with making a profit out of the hardship that most people face. They do this by peddling black-market food and medicine.
In Osaka, Soh becomes a surrogate father for many of the orphaned and homeless children in the area, passing on his wisdom as they struggle to survive. At the same time, he spends a large portion of his time getting into street brawls with the black marketeers who are exploiting the situation. After crippling two American G.I.s who almost killed a young Japanese boy, Soh is sent to prison, and it is looking likely that he will be executed. But the prison warden, a patriotic Japanese (a cameo by Tetsuro Tamba) turns a blind eye and allows Soh to escape, so long as Soh promises to leave the city.
The film skips forward to 1947, and Soh is in Tadotsu, on the island of Shikoku, and he has started a martial arts school, teaching those who are willing to learn the ways of Shaolin. His timing is fortuitous, because a gang of Yakuza are determined to not only control illegal activity, but generally do whatever they please — which happens to mean take and rape any girl that they want.
When the a group of Yakuza members gang-rape a young girl named Noriko and the police refuse to do anything about it, Soh steps in. And out come the scissors — and after my long-winded intro, you should know what comes next. The film rounds out its story with a final message which is that ‘Fighting without justice is just violence.’ Obviously that’s a great little message, but I guess if you were looking at the body of Sonny Chiba’s work at this time, I think it is fair to say that maybe, just maybe, he was miscast in this film.
If The Killing Machine was solely another violent exploitation flick in the same style as many other films that Chiba was making during this period, then it would leer and revel in the torridness it was depicting. Instead it treats its subject matter with sensitivity and honour. Sure the film has a few unpleasant moments, but they are not in the film to excite the audience. They are there as obstacles that the characters (and one assumes Doshin Soh in real life) had to overcome. Each obstacle makes them stronger people. All in all, this is a surprisingly enjoyable movie.