Home Video Hovel: The Street Fighter Collection, by Dayne Linford
No, this is not the 1994 Jean-Claude Van Damme adaptation of the famous video game series. We don’t even get a Ryu cameo, though I guess expecting characters not yet created would be rather unreasonable. This trio of films, kicked off with Clash, Killer Fist! in Japan, renamed The Street Fighter in the U.S. under then-fledgling New Line Cinema, were all released in 1974, in the breakneck tradition of Japanese filmmaking. Centered around Shinichi Chiba as a ruthless karate master criminal, they cemented his place as Japan’s premier martial arts star. Though uneven, they’re quite fun, and scratch that itch which only low-fi martial arts films can, while exploring, in subtext and production history, fascinating aspects of post-war 70s Japan and its relationship with the U.S.–ally, conqueror, trade partner, colonial exploiter.
None of us is watching these movies for the plot, so let’s just say Street Fighter is the kind of movie where prison breaks are orchestrated by faking an illness through the use of oxygen-blocking karate techniques – exactly what you were looking for when you decided to see The Street Fighter. However, these films are much darker than the usual: Takuma Tsurugi (Chiba), helpfully christened “Terry Sugury” in the American version, is simply a violent, amoral mercenary. In fact, the obligatory early scene where the bad guys prove really bad goes instead to Tsurugi, when he sells a woman, Nachi (Etsuko Shihomi), into sexual slavery to pay off her debt to him. He’s apparently only down with organized, money-making forms of rape, however, because he happily literally tears the scrotum off a rapist later in the film. These contradictions are not complicated character choices but merely arrive at the speed of plot, which does pay them off after a fashion. Nachi pops up again, recruiting her brother, another karate-murderer named Shikenbaru (played with steely Clint Eastwood-esque fury by Masashi Ishibashi), to join her in vengeance. So, there is real weight to Tsurugi’s shitty decisions, even though the film is ultimately unable to shoulder that weight.
The strongest element in the film, a key though not consistent element, is the way character psychologies are leveraged as part of their fighting technique. This is where Chiba really shines, and the best fights in the film pair him against an opponent with a very different style, such as Shikenbaru, or, in the best scene in the film, against honorable dojo teacher Kendo Masaoka (played by actual martial arts master Masafumi Suzuki), whose body type and approach diametrically oppose Chiba’s. As Tsurugi, Chiba leverages the breathing techniques that form the core of karate very well, to create character and build tension throughout the fight scenes. In its charming, sometimes still shocking, barebones way, Street Fighter is a lot of fun, and a standout in the genre.
The second film, Return of the Street Fighter, is a big step down. While the first film privileged plot machinations as a device to get to the next fight, this just goes from one fight to the other. Tsurugi is again up against some kind of criminal combine, this time led by well-known Japanese criminals the Italian-American Mafia, with “Don Costello” (played as a hippie by Claude Gagnon) standing in for the rest as the “Eastern Hemisphere Director.” Ah, back when people thought the mob was actually run like ExxonMobile, delightful. There’s a subplot concerning a suspicious policeman that quickly gets discarded and extensive re-use of footage from the first movie, now in black and white. One particular character makes a “surprising” reprise, which adds a little bit of color to the picture, but can’t do much to alleviate the long slog through fights devoid of tension. The Street Fighter’s Last Revenge, and they do mean last, is more of a return to form. Its strongest element is a new rival for Tsurugi, District Attorney Takera Kunigami (played with a unique soft touch by Koji Wada), initially introduced as a mysterious spanner in the works who steals the MacGuffin from Tsurugi. That he is later revealed to be a District Attorney is one of the pleasures of this film–with the exception of Tsurugi, none of the characters are really what they seem, leading to double-crosses and surprises aplenty; the downside of this is it demonstrates the weakness of Tsurugi as a character, who is largely acted upon by the designs of the others. But it’s a lot of fun throughout. It’s also the only film to have a female character of any complexity, gangster’s moll Aya Owada, played with surprising emotional depth by Reiko Ike. There’s nothing more to this film than the other two, and there’s plenty of flaws, but I frankly enjoyed it the most of the set. It’s a fitting end to a character that probably shouldn’t have had more than one movie.
This Arrow set has the original Japanese audio as well as New Line’s English dubs, and watching the films in both languages is like watching a completely different movie, in really fascinating ways. The Japanese cut embraces moral ambiguity, but the American dub is clearly much more squeamish about this, attempting to simultaneously keep the edge of Tsurugi’s amoral, selfish decisions but clarify that he’s also motivated by hatred for the bad guys, as if that stands in for a kind of morality. This attempt to eliminate ambiguity just creates confusion and frankly indicates a kind of childishness on the part of the American dubbers–willing to overlook selling people to the mob, but not willing to brook the moral equivocation in the original film between Tsurugi and his enemies.
Both versions, in wildly different ways, are obsessed with the relationship between Japan and the U.S. References are changed in the dub to suit American understandings and to mock Asian people, as in the time Tsurugi’s sidekick Rakuda (Goichi Yamada), astoundingly renamed “Ratnose” in the American dub, burns chicken and refers to it as “American style” or the numerous snide references to teriyaki throughout. The presence of evil American businessmen, the main villains of the first film, is softened in the dub, while the antagonism between Chinese characters and Japanese characters is sharpened. The Japanese film carries a strong subtext surrounding foreign invasions and control – Tsurugi is never said to be fighting “yakuza” or even the Triads in Hong Kong, he’s always fighting the “mafia.” The ultimate villains are Americans in the guise of legitimacy, even Don Costello, or corrupt bureaucrats, of which there are many. The film doesn’t go so far as to justify Tsurugi’s brutality as the result of a deeply corrupt system but it does indicate that a person like Tsurugi is an inevitability of the combination of his skillset and Japanese society post-war, especially with American overlords betraying bonds of trust at every possible chance. Meanwhile, the American dub contents itself with demeaning and mocking its Japanese characters, further diminishing any possible moral or social dimension to the films latent in the Japanese originals. Though very interesting, this is all subtext and remained uninvestigated throughout both versions. Many films produced to make a quick buck or released on the B track and in drive-ins achieved incredible feats, regardless of their budgeting and genre constraints. Specifically, Japan was releasing many incredible films at this time, like The Yakuza Papers, produced as B-level gangster movies, now classics. This trilogy, while above the fray for its particular genre, unfortunately remains distinctly lower tier, while being an entertaining diversion and a signifier of larger cultural concerns better explored elsewhere.