Starring: Sonny Chiba, Etsuko Shihomi, Aaron Banks, Judy Lee, Bill Louie
Director: Tatsuichi Takamori (1973)
Director: Simon Nuchtern (1976)
Cinematographer: Joel Shapiro
Music: Maurice Sarli
Producer: Susumu Yoshikawa (1973)
Producer: Terry Levene (1976)
AKA: Chiba The Bodyguard, Viva Chiba
Original Title: Karate Kiba
Sometimes in this day and age it is easy to forget how videotapes, DVD and Blu-ray have changed the way we watch movies, especially coupled with the search and buying options available through the internet. As a young boy growing up in rural Australia, I had no inkling of the films of Sonny Chiba. The were certainly not given a drive-in release in my home town, and were never going to turn up on commercial television at that time.
The interesting thing here, is that if Chiba had been available to me, it most likely would not be in the format I am used to today. Now this is not intended as a product endorsement — more to illustrate the way I am used to seeing Chiba film — down under there is a company called Madman, that has an off-shoot called Eastern Eye which specialises in Asian cinema. There films are gorgeously presented in widescreen and they often plum for the original language audio, with English subtitles for their releases. There are exceptions, such as the Godzilla films where they give you the option of subs or dub. But generally they serve up pretty authentic releases, served up the way the films were originally meant to be seen. Some of their Chiba releases have included Bullet Train, Golgo 13: Kowloon Assignment, The Street Fighter’s Last Revenge and two of the Yakuza Deka films. All these films look great; are hip and funky in a ’70s kind of way, and suggested a certain style in a Chiba movie — that being tough crime films with a serve of high impact martial arts.
Of course there is more to the story of Chiba, and these films only whetted my appetite for more of Chiba’s unique kind of thrills. Next I tracked down a film called Satomi Hakken Den (Legend of the Eight Samurai) directed by the chameleon Kinji Fukasaku. As much as I enjoyed Satomi Hakken Den – especially the giant Muppet centipede – what intrigued me more on the disk were the trailers for other Chiba features. One of these features was G.I. Samurai and the trailer suggests it is the story of a band of modern combat soldiers, led by Chiba, who slip through a crack in time and land in the middle of a turf war between two warring clans in feudal times. My jaw dropped, and I audibly exclaimed “Hell, yeah!” This is a film I need in my life.
Next, independently, Keith at Teleport City reviewed Wolfguy: Enraged Lycanthrope. Once again, that little voice in my head shouted “Hell, yeah — this is a film that I need in my life.” And at that point, I sadly realised I knew nothing about Chiba, and I had to dig deeper. Those pristine, widescreen prints were going to be a thing of the past. All I knew was my viewing was going to consist of murky second generation dupes, and it was going to get bloody. First stop…The Bodyguard (well almost!)
Before I started watching The Bodyguard there was a not-so-subtle hint that my world of Chiba was going to change. Firstly I went to ‘special features’ on the disk and there was a teaser for Street Fighter’s Last Revenge. As I alluded to earlier, Street Fighter’s Last Revenge was a film that I had already seen on an Eastern Eye disk. I thought that it was a great little action film with an impossibly funky score. But I chose to watch the teaser, and the first thing that struck me was that it was a dub (rather than subbed, as I know the film). The smooth, modulated dialogue was no longer there. Instead Chiba was angry and shouting “Don’t anybody move or I’ll rip this motherf*cker’s head off!” I knew Terry, The Streetfighter as a tough, man-of-action, but here, he was presented as one crazy, wild-eyed, bad-ass motherf*cker. This was a man who makes Maurizio Merli, Steven Segal and Michael Dudikoff or anyone who specialised in ‘revenge flicks’ look like boy scouts.
Next I moved on to The Bodyguard and it appears to be a film released in Japan in 1973, and then reissued in America in 1976 with some extra footage and atrocious dubbing. But first things first. I know it’s no longer cool to like Quentin Tarrantino any more. I know his films are a bunch of stolen moments from other films. But I like his films – I thought Inglourious Basterds was brilliant – and I must admit it still gives me a thrill when I discover the source of another of his in-jokes. The Bodyguard provides a clue to a moment in Pulp Fiction, when Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) explains to Tim Roth, that his is the wallet that says ‘Bad Mother F*cker’. But now I see that maybe Jules wasn’t the aforementioned ‘Bad Mother F*cker’, but Sonny Chiba is. How so? The speech that Jules says to scare his intended victims, Ezekiel 17:25, is presented in the opening credits of The Bodyguard, however where Jules quotes it correctly, The Bodyguard has the cheek to modify the words.
The path of the righteous man and defender is beset on all sides by the iniquity of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he, who in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness, for he is truly his brother’s keeper, and the father of lost children. And I will execute great vengeance upon them with furious anger, who poison and destroy my brothers; and they shall know that I am Chiba the Bodyguard when I shall lay my vengeance upon them!
So Jules’ speech in Pulp Fiction is a homage to the Baddest Mother F*cker of them all — Sonny Chiba! Can ya dig it!
The film opens in New York, with a scene that could be ripped off from The Godfather. An underworld Don, Salvatore Rocco and his family are gunned down on the steps outside a large church. The newspaper reports suggest the police are now searching for the Rocco’s Japanese mistress who is said to have disappeared.
Then we cut to a far to obvious, new scene that has been shoehorned into the film. It features two martial artists,Aaron Banks and Bill Louie, two real life martial arts champions, who are debating the strengths and weaknesses of Bruce Lee and Sonny Chiba’s fighting styles, including a demonstration of Bruce’s double nung-chuck technique. They round out the conversation by informing the audience that Chiba is on his way back to Tokyo.
The movie skips forward to the flight and a bunch of badasses hijack the flight. They hijack it for one reason, and that’s because Sonny Chiba is on the flight. Sonny, not only is the world’s number one martial artist, but he is also a fierce opponent of drugs and drug trafficking. These goons who have taken control of the flight, want to kill Chiba because of his interference with their drug trade. But even though there are five hijackers with guns, Chiba still kills each one of them with a series of power punches that have the bad guys spitting blood and teeth – that is before they die.
Upon arrival in Japan, Chiba appears on television vowing to stop the flow of drugs into the country, and furthermore offers himself up as a bodyguard to anybody who has information that can put the drug cartels out of action. One girl, Ricoh comes forward and asks for Chiba’s assistance. Before he will help her, he needs to see some proof. She says she has some evidence in the glove box of her car. Chiba sends his sister, Maggie down stairs to collect it, but the bad guys are waiting for her. As Chiba’s sister, Maggie has some fight skills of her own, but up against four men, she is outmatched. They knock her unconscious and strip her naked and lay her out. The shadow from the cross at the top of a church steeple covers her body. It’s actually quite a good visual moment – possibly better than this film deserves. After a while, when Maggie hasn’t returned, Chiba heads down to investigate. He finds her with the words ‘Cosa Nostra’ carved into her arm. Chiba now knows for sure he is up against the mafia.
Convinced that Ricoh is in danger, Chiba agrees to protect her. They go back to her apartment, and Chiba does a sweep to check that everything is okay. The apartment appears clean and free from danger. Later that night, however, a gang of assassins cut their way out of the furniture (couches and armchairs) where they have been hiding. I guess when you think about it, it is pretty goofy, but this scene represents one of the highlights of the whole movie, so I recommend basking in the ‘goofiness’. Chiba, of course, then fights with the bad guys in his usual rib shattering and arm snapping way.
Of course, as most people would have guessed, Ricoh is the ‘missing’ mistress of Salvatore Rocco (the underworld figure shot down at the start of the film). Therefore she is not really interested in stemming the flow of narcotics into Japan. She simply wants Chiba to protect her form the various gangs — the Mafia and the Yakuza — who are after her and the drug shipment she has arranged to be brought into the country.
Essentially this makes Chiba a stupid dupe and he follows her around Tokyo while she makes arrangements to unload the drugs. When he finally wakes up to what is going on, for some strange reason he still agrees to help her. It is all very silly, sloppy and contrived. Some of this may be due to the American re-editing and dubbing of the film, but I think even the original Japanese version of the film would be low hanging fruit.
The amazing thing about Chiba, is no matter where he hits an opponent, you can be sure that the guy spits blood. He could punch a Yakuza gang member in the knee cap, and sure enough, the Yakuza would keel over and a bubble of thick, bright red blood would dribble over his lips. It is a unique talent that Chiba has, and a talent that generally makes his films so entertaining. Not so, The Bodyguard. Sure there’s plenty of blood spitting, even a few teeth flying, but on the whole this film is pretty muddled and uninspiring.
Visually, the camera shots are tightly focused and there is an over abundance of hand held cinematography.Some of the fight scenes are so dimly lit and jerkily edited, it is hard to tell if they are well choreographed or not. Which is what you really watch a Chiba picture for – the stylised fight scenes. But when they are stylised and filmed in such a fashioned, it renders the film physically impotent.
Co-starring with Chiba is Etsuko Shihomi, who also starred with Chiba in a whole swag of films including; The Legend of the Eight Samurai, Shogun Ninja, Golgo 13: Kowloon Assignment, Bullet Train, The Streetfighter, The Streetfighter’s Last Revenge, Sister Streetfighter and many others.
The Bodyguard is not great Chiba, and I think I’ll keep searching for a copy of G.I. Samurai to slake my thirst for Chiba’s unique style of mayhem, and I’d suggest that other Chibafiles look elsewhere too.