Viva Chiba! Part One: The Assassin (1970)

Sometimes you get lucky.  When combing through the dusty racks of a local video rental place that was going out of business a few years back, I found a CBS Fox Video VHS release of The Assassin, the 1977 US dub of Sonny Chiba’s 1970 action/comedy flick, Yakuza deka—Marijuana mitsubai soshiki.  Why did it take seven years for this movie to make it to US shores?  For the same reason it took three years for Sonny Chiba’s Bodyguard Kiba to be released in the US (with extra, non-Chiba footage, no less!) as The Bodyguard: after The Street Fighter hit it big in 1974, every cheapo distribution company with a phone, a file cabinet, and a dodgy loan decided to cash in on Sonny’s sudden marketability.

Directed by Yukio Noda, who would re-team with Chiba in 1977 for Golgo 13: Assignment: Kowloon, The Assassin is your typical low-brow action comedy, complete with burnt bare asses and shameless mugging.  Think a less flatulent Executioner 2.  Unlike in that film, however, The Assassin is neither funny enough nor action-packed enough to sustain interest, despite Chiba’s running around in a giant black floppy hat obviously borrowed from Meiko Kaji, and lots of dope smoking.  By the halfway point I had given up and was searching YouTube for Eiko Koike bikini videos.

When Bruce Lee died in 1973, he left a huge void in the schedules of grind houses from Times Square to San Francisco’s Market Street.  Unscrupulous distributors and filmmakers rushed to stop up that leaky gap with all sorts of crappy films starring alternately spelled Bruces, but it wasn’t until Shinichi Chiba arrived with his unintentional hipster-drug-speak last name and manic, Bruce-like intensity in The Street Fighter that the hole could be properly filled.

Of course, Sonny Chiba (as he would come to be called) is not Bruce Lee, and his general fighting style is very different from that of Bruce’s. Aquarius Releasing played this up big time when they re-cut Chiba’s 1973 manga adaptation Bodyguard Kiba into The Bodyguard aka Viva Chiba The Bodyguard aka Karate Kiba, effectively making the main character into Sonny Chiba himself a la Jackie Chan in his American films, and having real-life martial artists Bill Louie and Aaron Banks debate the skills of Bruce and Sonny in a hastily added intro to the film.  And then there’s the obligatory training montage, the karate-kicking students inexplicably chanting, “Viva Chiba!” Bizarre, to say the least.

The plot, such that it is, involves the mafia trying to muscle in on the Japanese drug business, with Chiba single-handedly trying to take them down.  But that’s not why you watch The Bodyguard. With the atrocious video transfer quality and full-screen cropping on the Vintage Home Entertainment quickie DVD release (check your local going-out-of-business video store!), it’s hard to see what’s going on.  This is made worse in the film itself by the cameraman, who starts shaking the camera like a Polaroid whenever Chiba works up any kind of sweat. No, you watch it for all the insanity that Aquarius added.  Viva Chiba indeed.