Directors: Kazuhiko Yamaguchi, Shigehiro Ozawa
Screenplay: Masahiro Kakefuda, Norifumi Suzuki, Takeo Kaneko, Isao Matsumoto, Motohiro Torii
Starring: Etsuko Shihomi, Asao Uchida, Masashi Ishibashi, Shin’ichi Chiba, Mitchi Love
Running Time: 333 (86 / 85 / 77 / 77) mins
BBFC Certificate: 18
In the early 70s, Hong Kong kung-fu movies enjoyed a massive boom around the world, after Bruce Lee shot to fame. Eager to replicate this success in their own country and with their own martial arts heritage, Japanese film studios soon attempted to get in on the action by producing karate and other martial arts movies. One of the first big international martial arts movie successes in Japan was The Street-Fighter in 1974, which made Shin’ichi ‘Sonny’ Chiba a star outside his home country (he’d already found moderate success in Japan). Sequels were made of course, including a spin-off called Sister Street Fighter. This featured Chiba in a relatively small role, but was really a star vehicle for a member of his ‘Japan Action Club’, Etsuko Shihomi, who the studio wanted to make a name for. Indeed, it did well at the box office and spawned two direct sequels of its own, Sister Street Fighter: Hanging By A Thread and Return Of The Sister Street Fighter, as well as a sequel by name only, Sister Street Fighter: Fifth Level Fist. Arrow Video have picked up the series and released them together on Blu-Ray, so I got myself a copy to see if the films stood up against their ‘brothers’.
I’m going to review the four films together rather than provide separate write-ups. This is partly down to laziness on my part and due to them sharing similar pros and cons, but largely because the films (or at least the first three) share almost exactly the same storyline. There are variations in the details, but all three ‘official’ Sister Street Fighter films see Shihomi play the half-Chinese, half-Japanese Li Koryu, whose relative/friend has gone missing (a different one each time). She heads to the city to find them and discovers they’re caught up with some kind of gangsters, who always seem to be running some sort of elaborate smuggling scheme. These range from heroin sprinkled on wigs to diamonds hidden (literally stitched) inside women’s bodies. The gang bosses all have a bizarrely varied collection of martial artists at their disposal too, which Koryu has to dispose of to save her friend/relative and put an end to the criminal schemes.
When it comes to action-heavy martial arts films like these, I don’t mind a purely serviceable plot. In fact I actively encourage it sometimes, so as to not get in the way of what I came to see – the fight scenes. However, by the third iteration of pretty much the exact same story, I was losing interest a touch whilst watching Return Of The Sister Street Fighter. Throwing in another generic action movie plot would have been enough to make a difference. Thankfully, given that Sister Street Fighter: Fifth Level Fist is an entirely unrelated follow-up, it offers a slightly different storyline. Here Shihomi plays Kiku, a karate-loving young woman who tries to help her friend Michi (Mitchi Love) get revenge for her brother Jim (Ken Wallace), who was killed by a criminal organisation he was doing a job for. The gang are once again smuggling drugs (this time in little Buddha statues) but they’re using a film studio as a front and we also follow a police investigation into the matter, which offers a new spin on things.
This final film in the series spends more time on its story too and is a slightly classier production than the others, which revel in their trashier side. However, it was my least favourite in the collection for that very reason. As much as the first three films were let down by flimsy and repetitive plots, they only ever used these as skeletons to hang a series of fast-paced, high impact fight scenes. These are what I loved about the series. Shihomi has incredible physical ability and martial art skill and she’s allowed to show this through the often quite acrobatic and furiously energetic action set-pieces.
Like in Chiba’s Street Fighter films, the fights are enjoyably over the top and often quite gory too. There are a couple of eyeball piercing/gouging scenes, plenty of sword/knife slashing and even a crazy sequence where Koryu twists a bad guy’s head around 180 degrees and we see him stagger around for a bit with his new back-to-front arrangement. It all sounds horrific, but it’s not particularly realistic and there’s an enjoyably ludicrous comic-book-style feel to the violence.
In terms of visuals, the films are all fairly stylish, with some canted/dutch angles, nice use of bold colours and punchy editing. The second film can be a little too fast-cutting and gets carried away with its wild handheld camerawork, perhaps influenced by Battles Without Honour and Humanity but not carrying it off as successfully. The amped up action in Hanging By A Thread helps make up for this though and the style settles down in its follow-up. Fifth Level Fist is more sedate in all aspects, but it’s still nicely shot.
So, the films in the set are flawed, with a little too much repetition and perhaps the first three could have benefitted from a breather here and there in amongst the near-constant fighting. The fourth film goes too far the other way, lacking the energy of its predecessors, but regardless, the films are a lot of fun. With lashings of gore, high-quality martial arts sequences with wacky flourishes thrown in to the mix, they’ll be sure to please fans of Japanese genre movies.
Sister Street Fighter Collection is out now on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by Arrow Video. It looks and sounds great, with near flawless transfers all round. You get a choice of dialogue options on the first film too.
There are a handful of special features included in the set too. Here’s the list:
– High Definition digital transfers of all four films
– High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentations
- Original uncompressed Japanese mono audio
– Original English dubbed audio for Sister Street Fighter
- New optional English subtitle translation for all four films
– English SDH subtitles for the English dub for Sister Street Fighter
- New video interviews with actor Shinichi “Sonny” Chiba, director Kazuhiko Yamaguchi, and screenwriter Masahiro Kakefuda
- Original Japanese theatrical trailers for all four films
- Original U.S. theatrical trailer for Sister Street Fighter, plus original English opening titles to the film
- Original German theatrical trailer for Sister Street Fighter, plus original German opening titles to the film
- Stills and poster gallery
– Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Kungfubob O’Brien
– First pressing only: Illustrated booklet featuring writing on the series by Patrick Macias and a new essay on the U.S. release of Toei’s karate films by Chris Poggiali
The video interviews, which all run around 10 minutes each, are informative and entertaining. Yamaguchi and Kakefuda are thankfully very open about how silly the films are and how much fun they had coming up with ridiculous ideas for them. Chiba is his usual charismatic self and his interview is a continuation from the one he did for Wolf Guy and Doberman Cop, with much talk about his ‘Japan Action Club’. Hopefully Arrow have more Chiba films up their sleeves so we can hear part 4 and further from their seemingly epic interview with the star.
I didn’t receive the booklet to review unfortunately.