Sonny Chiba fans have reason to be happy, with this release of The Executioner and The Executioner II: Karate Inferno, as well as The Street Fighter Trilogy, Arrow Films have made plenty of Chiba available for UK audiences in high definition.
Honestly all I knew about these two films is that they star Sonny Chiba and are directed by Teruo Ishii, the ero guro nansensu-master that directed Horrors of Malformed Men (which is a great film if you've not seen it). But it was enough that Ishii was behind the camera as to intrigue me, knowing of his cinematic penchant for the unusual and more than a dash of the perverse.
Heir to the Koga ninja clan, Ryuichi Koga (Sonny Chiba) is enlisted by an ex-police commissioner to take on the drug-dealing mafia alongside disgraced policeman-cum-assassin for hire, Hayabusa (Makoto Sato) and death row prisoner Sakura (Eiji Go). All of these activities are overseen by the ex-commissioner's daughter, Emi (Yutaka Nakajima).
The Executioner starts with crunching efficiency and clearly knows when to lift from the best as it follows a structure not unlike The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, even borrowing Lee Van Cleef’s introductory story of double revenge and giving it to Hayabusa. But who cares because it’s an effective and curiously enthralling beginning, which Ishii handles with his usual aplomb, moving us at a breathless pace into a plot involving drugs and more martial artists than you can shake a nunchacku at. It’s not unfair to say the narrative is a total bag of nanchackus as I’m not sure it makes much sense. Hayabusa wants to get revenge on the mafia who are using the deaf/mute daughter of a South American diplomat as a drug mule, whose bodyguards killed both his fellow officers as well as his career and is going to do this by stealing the drugs and selling them again?
Say what? Also the amount of drugs this young woman brings in seems of such small proportions (I mean a very small and not very full handbag, at the beginning at least) has to have some vague illicit value but to be one of the main drug suppliers - if not the key supplier - into Japan is ludicrous, but then ludicrous is Ishii’s cinematic space and you feel his screenplay is more interested in stitching together some effective fight sequences while slipping in humour and getting some really very engaging performances from our leads. Add to this some real power-games and double-crossing larks, but always with a knowing nod and wink at the audience. It’s noticeable that Nakajima as Emi, who plays the rather thankless dumb-as-a-brick heir in The Street Fighter, has more fun with her role even if she has to constantly fight off Sakura, who is introduced to us as not only as a death row inmate but also a lewd fella too. He’s always trying to get into Emi’s knickers and you feel Emi is more than a match for him, a good thing too as there's a fair amount of nudity in the film; this is hardly surprising for an Ishii film given his penchant for perversity and or humour, and it’s not always easy to know what to make of some of it - though for certain it never falls into distasteful - but this is a not a film full of strong female characters by any stretch of the imagination.
The film is more concerned with male-bonding mixed with action, and there’s a real "bromance" chemistry between Chiba and Sato as the ex-policeman; Sato has that kind of worn, knowing, seen-it-all face that balances out Chiba’s more feral violence, though here he seems more the wayward ninja finding himself. Both are extremely engaging, whereas Go as Sakura is more a comic foil, based on his attempts to get Emi to shag him, which will never happen. Though Ishii never has moments like the x-ray punch gimmick, he is always the more inventive director compared to Ozawa’s work in The Street Fighter. Ishii more often uses the camera to give a sense of being "in" the action, and when slow motion is brought in it feels like there is a visually exciting reason to do so, rather than the usual lazy way it’s used ad infinitum in Hollywood these days.
True, towards the second half the film becomes a crazed fever action dream, but Ishii handles it so well it makes perfect narrative sense; the mafia start to tear themselves to pieces like the rabid dogs they are, even as our heroes are moving against them, creating a denouement that in many ways is intriguing. There’s the expected showdown, that’s no spoiler, but as we get a big explosion of violence as you might expect, it also factors in the sort of absurdist perversity that would not be out of place in Ishii’s earlier Shogun torture films. Mixing this with all the Chiba action you might want while placing it in situations you might not quite expect with character's we barely know as they suddenly show greater values than our protagonists might seem dizzying, leading us (not unfairly) to sometimes question who are the good guys really are means that there is no great moral core to be found here. There are just shades of grey and a lot of brutally effective crunching violence, yet with more than enough other cinematic elements to keep those of us who are not intrinsically interested in martial arts watching intently.
Sensible at about 85-minutes, Ishii never lets the film dawdle, likely a matter of time and budget, but who cares because it’s all lean and all mean.
Which left me wondering what I might make of The Executioner II: Karate Inferno.
Opening to a pulsing score and flash cuts of images from the first and current film, it’s like Ishii is saying: get ready! I mean, Karate Inferno!
A charitable heiress has come to Japan with her priceless jewels, so of course those are stolen and her daughter is kidnapped for added value, so the ex-commissioner once more tasks his daughter Emi to enlist our trio for a second adventure.
Yes, Karate Inferno sets itself up immediately as a proper adventure romp. And honestly it starts off pretty well, even if the story, well you know where it’s going based on the first one, with our trio never likely to see the money and almost everyone else being the bad guy. Like the original, there are flashes of nudity that seem thrown in "just because", though the perversity - that can be both uncomfortable but also rightfully disturbing - can work thanks to returning director Teruo Ishii's skill as a story teller. Yet as the story (or what little of it there is) unfolds, the romp goes in a strange direction, one limp with crude humour, often in sequences that seem to exist for no reason at all except perhaps to try and string out the running time to 85-minutes.
Sometimes it works as an element in a scene, where you assume there is a point to it, and a pleasure to be had in the temporary absurdity of it, but the absurdity turns out to be drawn out and shown up as no more than puerility; it’s something that happens throughout the latter half of the film, and the laziness extends into other aspects too, such as Hayabusa flying a plane with the intent to get Kogo and Sakura onto the top of a building and - yes you guessed it - he cannot fly. It’s all slapstick nonsense that, beyond the existence of the characters, is tonally so out of touch with the original film that you wonder what happened. Was there a Teruo Ishii script here that was taken over? I do wonder as there is an assistant director who is given more prominence in the credits than you’d expect. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that Ishii was turfed off the picture at one point and another director, the assistant, brought in to change the tone and direction of the film. (Has a bright future at Marvel or Lucasfilm then - Ed). This is pure conjecture but would make sense as really Karate Inferno has little in the way of Karate Infernoings going on to be fair. The middle of the film is mainly given over to the tiresome comedy elements that really do start to drag. The crunching action the title sequence promises never really materialises.
Which is a shame because for all the lost promise of the opening and the utterly rote story, you expect there’s at least good old bone-cracking Chiba fun to be had. It’s not until the end that we get anything like this and even then it’s short and confusing, like 10-15 minutes of film has been cut out as suddenly we’re in a fistfight that includes at least one side character suddenly coming to prominence, but wherever did she come from? Why is she here now and fighting? Who knows; she simply is! (And this is of course Etsuko Shihomi who would go on to star in the Sister Street Fighter films and to be fair has real presence for the small size of her role.) It’s just bizarre and then the ending, well, it’s barely worth the name to be honest. A quick: aha, so-and-so is really so-and-so and so what? You don’t really care. As a second film in the set it’s a disappointment. It has its moments but perhaps it doesn’t help that Go as Sakura is given more prominence in this sequel. Just like the first film, he’s very much the pervy problem child in contrast to the more grown-up Kogo and Hayabusa, with this film giving in to its worst instincts in order to follow his antics.
I cannot imagine anyone really sitting in the cinema or at home really wanting more of Sakura’s antics. Ever.
So the two films fizzle out, which is a shame because the first is a strong entry into Chiba’s cannon. It might not be classic Teruo Ishii but it bears many of his marks, which makes this a wonderful oddity. In contrast, Karate Damp-Squib, sorry, "Inferno", is just tonally baffling, a comic counterpoint to the cracking original. I just can't understand who it's aimed at.
Still as a set it is definitely worth checking out, assuming you don’t already have The Executioner, as the second film is for completists only.
Extra points for the first film, points off for the second, though to be fair at the price you can't complain. Two films for less than Criterion charge for one.