Viva Chiba! Part Two: The Bodyguard (1976)
The Bodyguard (U.S. version, 1976)
Before the movie even starts, a humorously modified version of the biblical passage Ezekiel 25:17, now famously lifted used by Quentin Tarantino in Pulp Fiction (OK, everyone sing along now….”The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities…blahblahblah”), scrolls down the screen proclaiming the righteous power that is “Chiba the Bodyguard”. Unfortunately, the movie which follows this grand opening is a bit less than biblical, unless you’re talking about the snoozy Leviticus.
The Bodyguard then starts promisingly enough: a mafia boss is gunned down by a number of “unknown assailants” (forget that this happened in broad daylight in front of a church in New York City). We then get some obviously tacked-on scenes of some sclumps in a random gym practicing martial arts. Next, cut to an airplane hijacking, an attempt to flush out Sonny Chiba in a crowd of passengers. This, of course, ends in all of the criminals getting the crap kicked out of them and the audience getting Chiba’s hammy fist shaking in its face. Finally, during the press conference, Chiba speaks the best line in the movie:
Interviewer: You killed five mobsters with your bare hands. It took great courage. Why did you do it?
Chiba: Because I had to.
Isn’t that just bad ass? Everyone should be able to use that line for incidents that require an immediate pardon. Imagine using it when questioned by a police officer about why you were speeding in a school zone. Why was I speeding, officer? Because I had to.
From there, though, the movie just kind of goes downhill. Chiba hates drugs and offers his services as a bodyguard to anyone willing to testify against the gangsters bringing in the drugs, then he gets mixed up with a woman (Mari Atsumi) who may or may not have information or drugs or…? After a while, it just doesn’t matter as the movie gets as stilted as Chiba looks in the outrageously garish suits he has to wear in the movie. For a Chiba movie, there is not as much action as you’d expect and, what little there is, it’s pretty unexciting and feels cheaply staged. Scenes of eye poking and arm-putation were kind of fun, though.
The Bodyguard is obviously a Japanese production with filler added in for the American audience. Too bad that a little more “good” wasn’t added as well.
Sonny Chiba’s Dragon Princess (U.S. version, 1976)
With a title like Dragon Princess and appearances by Sonny Chiba and protegee Etsuko Shiomi, you might expect a wacky fantasy jidaigeki in the vein of 1983’s Legend of the Eight Samurai (not coincidentally, also starring Chiba and Shiomi). Bummer, though, Dragon Princess is the typical martial arts revenge story: student/offspring Yumi Higaki (Shiomi) has to avenge father/teacher Kazuma (Chiba) after he is badly beaten then exiled by the rival dojo’s master, Nikaido (Bin Amatsu). Nikaido, though a grandmaster, has his own stable of crooked students including the “Big Four”, a quartet of martial artists who each has his own specialty weapon. And before you can scream, “They killed teacher! TEEEEACHEEEER!”, Yumi is off to avenge and restore the honor of her father.
Shiomi stays covered up in monk’s robes throughout the movie. In contrast, many female actresses at the time had to bear some skin, be fondled or ravished in some way, or tied up and whipped. Shiomi was spared these sorts of trials mainly because of her physicality and ties with Chiba’s “Action Club” of young martial-artists. Sure enough, Shiomi is very convincingly physical, no half-assed, floppy-armed choreography that you usually see in the pinky violence movies of the era, just pure, bone-crunching Shiomi-fu. You can tell that she’s really enjoying herself, too. In one scene, she performs a standing triple flip then straddles her opponent to the ground and punches his face in for good measure. After that she kicks and punches her way through about a dozen more enemies and ends with a “want some more, bitch?!?!” look on her face. Shiomi is pretty awesome to watch, even if the movie as a whole is tepid, at best.
Karate Warriors (U.S. version, 1976)
Though not as well known or loved as its predecessors, Karate Warriors was actually the fourth, and last, of The Streetfighter series in Japan. To the film’s fortune, it maintains the same level of action and sleazy fun as well. The story fits well within the series: Chiba plays all-around scumbag “Chico” caught in a proxy war of sorts between two yakuza gangs headed by brothers looking for heroin stashed away by a former boss. When Chiba finds the hidden heroin (by finding a clue conveniently hidden in the dead boss’ gravestone–wouldn’t it have been found by the person who placed the gravestone?), all hell breaks loose as Chiba tries to get away with the dope with the two gangs hot on his trail.
There are many bizarre idiosyncrasies throughout the film. Although obviously a modern film by the garish ’70s fashions the characters wear, one of the gangs employs a samurai, replete with katana and geta, to fight for them. Also, for a film with so many yakuza, there are relatively few guns. My guess is that the cause of this was pretty tight-budgeted thugs working for a stingy boss or a pretty tight-budgeted film crew working for a stingy film company. Oddly, one thing that wasn’t skimped on was camera effects: lots of slo-mo roundhouse kicks (take that Matrix! take that Chuck Norris!), punches, sword slashes, and more for maximum brutal fun. Prime stuff for the true Chiba fan.