Director: Kazuhiko Yamaguchi
Screenplay: Norifumi Suzuki (Karate Bullfighter), Masahiro Kakefuda (Karate Bearfighter), Nobuaki Nakajima (Karate Bearfighter)
Based on a Manga by: Ikki Kajiwara, Jirô Tsunoda, Jôya Kagemaru
Starring: Shin’ichi Chiba (a.k.a. Sonny Chiba), Yumi Takigawa, Jirô Yabuki, Mikio Narita, Katsumasa Uchida, Eiji Gô, Yutaka Nakajima, Hiroshi Kondô, Narumi Kayashima
Country: Japan
Running Time: 88 min (Karate Bullfighter), 87 min (Karate Bearfighter)
Year: 1975

In 1975, Shin’ichi “Sonny” Chiba’s star was swiftly on the rise. He’d been making films since the turn of the 60s, but it wasn’t until The Street Fighter in 1974 that he became an international star. As such, he kept very busy through the latter half of the decade, making numerous action movies that capitalised on his tough guy persona and genuine karate credentials (he was a black belt in Kyokushin Karate, reaching fourth degree by the 80s).

A trilogy of films he made during this time had particular personal significance though. In 1975, Chiba released Karate Bullfighter (a.k.a. Champion of Death or Kenka karate kyokushinken) and Karate Bearfighter (a.k.a. Kenka karate kyokushin burai ken), then followed this up later in 1977 with Karate for Life (a.k.a. Karate baka ichidai). These films were veeerrry loosely based on the life of Masutatsu Oyama, Chiba’s one-time master, and charted the story of his development of Kyokushin Karate, Chiba’s form of choice. This was a martial art that was tougher than most karate styles at the time of its inception, being full-contact and about actual fighting, not just kata and smashing tiles. It was also famous for making use of the natural elements to train, not simply using gym/dojo equipment.

Eureka are releasing the first two films from this trilogy on Blu-ray, under the title Beast Fighter: Karate Bullfighter & Karate Bearfighter. It’s a US-only region A release (possible reasons for this will be discussed later), but I managed to get hold of a copy and my thoughts follow.

As mentioned, these films were adaptions that didn’t quite present a fully factual account of Oyama’s life. That might be largely due to them being adapted from a series of Manga entitled ‘Karate Baka Ichidai’ (literally translated as ‘A Karate-Crazy Life’), though Oyama himself oversaw the production and even pops up in each film briefly.

In Karate Bullfighter, Sonny Chiba portrays Oyama as a rough and aggressive fighter who arrives in post-war Japan just after the occupying force’s ban on karate has been lifted. Unimpressed with the flashier, ‘dance-like’ styles of traditional karate, he seeks to prove the strength of his bare-knuckled approach.

Entering a major karate tournament, Oyama turns heads with his gruff appearance and easily overpowers his opponents. This display of raw power catches the eye of Nakasone, a powerful figure in the karate world, who offers him a chance to hone his skills but only if he’s willing to adopt the traditional, “dignified” form preferred at the time.

Oyama refuses and continues to challenge tradition and defy authority, finding himself embroiled in violent conflicts (including the titular bullfight) and personal tragedies. Through these struggles, including a short repose where he tries to make up for killing a thug by assisting the man’s wife and son on their farm, he refines his fighting spirit and paves the way for his own, more rigorous form of karate.

Along the way, he meets Chiako (Yumi Takigawa), whom he had saved from gangsters several years ago. Believing she’s become a geisha for US GIs, Oyama rapes her out of anger. Realising afterwards that she’s actually an interpreter, Oyama is guilt-ridden. Bizarrely (and problematically), Chiako soon forgives him and falls in love with him. However, Oyama’s first and perhaps only love is karate.

Karate Bearfighter follows a similar formula, which is why I’m reviewing the titles together as one.

At the start of the film, Oyama is down-and-out, causing chaos at a rival karate dojo and drunkenly brawling in a bar. He’s hired as a bodyguard for a yakuza friend and finds himself becoming a shell of his former self.

Aided by Chiako and spurred on by the tragic deaths of two friends, Oyama begins to rebuild his life and fight for honour once again. His primary target is Ryudoji (Eiji Gō), the karate master he’d faced off with at the start of the film and who was responsible for the deaths of his friends.

Along the way, he becomes a surrogate father figure once again, this time for a young boy who stole the urns containing his friends’ ashes but was doing so to support his alcoholic, grieving father who falls foul of a terrible accident.

Now I’m not a fan of biopics but I’m willing to make an exception when they’re made in the form of martial arts movies starring the legendary Shin’ichi “Sonny” Chiba. Indeed, I had a lot of fun with the films in Eureka’s ‘Beast Fighter’ set.

You have to take much of what you’re watching with a pinch of salt and the films can be rather episodic and generic at times. However, when you pick up a set of Sonny Chiba films sold as being about him fighting wild animals, you’re unlikely to be overly concerned about facts or plot. You’re here for action.

In this aspect, Karate Bullfighter & Karate Bearfighter do not disappoint. Like most of Chiba’s films, the choreography isn’t particularly graceful or well-choreographed. Instead, they impress through their energy and fierce brutality. You feel it when you watch Chiba punch or kick someone and this sensation is amplified by the frequent use of first-person POV camerawork in the fights. This throws you into the action, even if it might take you away from watching any impressive moves from a clearer angle.

Both films are jam-packed with fights too. Barely 10 minutes ever goes by without some sort of dust-up.

A question on many potential viewers’ lips, however, might be “how about the animal fights?” Well, these are a mixed bag. The bullfight in the first film is surprisingly effective, from a set-piece point of view. It’s intense and often quite believable, at least initially. However, Oyama’s eventual dispatching of the animal becomes way over the top and vicious. I’m no animal rights activist but I felt the scene ended rather sadistically after beginning in a much more honourable fashion, with the character wanting to save the residents of a village from getting mauled.

Whilst the more gruesome elements that come towards the end of the scene are clearly faked, some shots look to be using an actual bull and I’m guessing this is why the boxset didn’t get a UK release. The BBFC are very strict on animal cruelty.

Karate Bearfighter’s bear fight, meanwhile, is pretty comical. It’s clearly a guy in a p*ss-poor bear suit throughout the scene. I didn’t spot any real bears being used. If there were, it must have been in the briefest of shots. As such, I imagine this could have been released in the UK, but perhaps Eureka didn’t want to complicate things with different packages for different territories. Collectors often import these days anyway.

Moving away from the action, there is one scene that settles very poorly in the saga. As described in my synopsis, it surrounds our ‘hero’ raping Chiako. The sequence is questionable as it is, but what makes it worse is that Oyama was a consultant on the film, so clearly he was OK with it being included! Whilst it’s refreshing to see a biopic show different sides to its subject and paint them as a far-from-perfect figure, having Oyama rape someone and then having the victim dote on him afterwards is perhaps not the most tasteful way of doing this.

This unfortunate aspect of the film aside, the films in the ‘Beast Fighter’ set are a lot of fun. Stuffed to the gills with hard-hitting fight scenes and driven by the ever-charismatic Chiba, it’s easy to forgive any narrative shortfalls and simply go along for the ride.

Karate Bullfighter:

Karate Bearfighter:

Beast Fighter: Karate Bullfighter & Karate Bearfighter is out on 25th June on Region A Blu-Ray in the US, released by Eureka Classics. Both films look great, with clean and sharp transfers and pleasing colours. The audio is decent too, though it suffers from some of the usual problems with harsh ‘s’ sounds that you get in many films from that era.

SPECIAL FEATURES

– Limited edition O-card slipcase featuring new artwork by JJ Harrison
– 1080p presentations of both films across two Blu-ray discs, from new restorations of the original film elements by Toei
– Original Japanese mono audio
– Brand new feature-length audio commentaries on both films by action cinema experts Mike Leeder & Arne Venema
– In Search of the Ultimate Truth – Brand new video essay by Jonathan Clements, author of A Brief History of the Martial Arts
– Original theatrical trailers
– Limited edition collector’s booklet featuring new writing by Eddie Falvey

Venema and Leeder provide commentaries for both films. They help fill in some of the gaps in the actual story of Oyama’s life as well as those of members of the cast and crew. They also point out some fascinating facts about Japanese culture that link to the film. As such, they’re valuable and fascinating tracks. As ever, each is delivered with passion and charm too, so they’re a pleasure to listen to.

There’s also a 20-minute piece by Jonathan Clements. This is another excellent extra that provides some vital background and a little analysis in a compact but rich package.

In the booklet, Eddie Falvey talks about where the films in the set and some of Chiba’s other work at the time fit within the Japanese cinematic landscape of the time. He also provides some intriguing analysis of the films.

So, whilst not bursting at the seams with extra features, what Eureka have included in the set is all excellent and the films are a lot of fun too, so it gets a strong recommendation from me.

Disc/Package:

Beast Fighter: Karate Bullfighter and Karate Bearfighter - Eureka
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