The Street Fighter (1974) – With the martial arts craze in full swing, and Bruce Lee’s untimely death a year earlier leaving a hole in the world of kung-fu films, Sonny Chiba picked up the mantel as the world’s most famous martial arts movie star in The Street Fighter. However, The Street Fighter would be unlike other martial arts films brought to North America during that time by presenting the audience with a brutal anti-hero, Terry Tsurugi. But securing its place in cult film history is the fact that The Street Fighter became the first film to ever receive an X-rating for its graphic violence giving it an instant notoriety.
Terry Tsurugi is a modern day mercenary for hire. If you have someone you want to rub out, rescue, protect or a dangerous job of any kind, Terry is your man. However, there is nothing heroic about him. Able to kill with his bare hands, Terry is an extremely cold and cruel individual who only believes in taking care of one person – himself. When mobsters attempt to hire Terry to kidnap an oil heiress, Terry refuses when he discovers that they are members of the Yukuzah. Now, with the mob out to kill him for knowing too much, Terry must fight to stay alive. But if he’s going to fight, he might as well get something out of it and offers his services to protect the oil heiress himself. Soon Terry finds himself in over his head when his enemies hire a martial arts master out for very personal revenge against Terry. As the body count grows, it eventually becomes unclear just who the real good guys are.
While the violence is fairly tame compared to today’s “extreme Asian” genre, The Street Fighter still manages to live up to its reputation. This is one bad ass film. Before The Street Fighter came to American cinemas, the fight scenes in kung fu films were still artistic and obviously choreographed. The Street Fighter offered a far more brutal form of action in which skulls are shattered, bones are mangled, eyes are gouged, throats are torn out and, in one memorable sequence, Sonny Chiba castrates a man with his bare hands. It was unlike any sort of action based violence yet seen by most American audiences. Released the same year as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, famous for its violence and gore which helped change the horror genre, the American sensors signaled out The Street Fighter as the more violent of the two films. The reason mainly had to do with the fact that the violence in Texas Chainsaw Massacre primarily took place off screen and was only implied while Sonny Chiba was crushing and maiming people right on the screen before the eyes of the startled, and/or thrilled, North American audience. To say the least, The Street Fighter would help change the martial arts genre in a similar way that Texas Chainsaw Massacre changed horror. Due to it’s extreme violence, The Street Fighter was issued an X rating, which prompted the film’s distributor to cut sixteen minutes out of it. The edited version was the one that most American audiences saw during the time of its release, but the fact that a more violent version of the film existed became a thing of legend amongst martial art film fans who longed to see the full version long before VHS tapes were commonplace. Although bootlegs of the full version would float around by the mid 1980’s, the full version of the film was not officially released until 1993. The Street Fighter is also notable for its higher quality of production than most previous marital arts or grindhouse pictures of the time. The film looks good, has imaginative use of film editing, holds a decent pace due to non-stop action and is even dubbed well. Still today The Street Fighter manages to hold up as one of the greatest martial arts films of all time.
If Bruce Lee was to martial arts films what John Wayne was to westerns, then Sonny Chiba is easily the Clint Eastwood of the genre. Sonny Chiba is one mean son of a bitch. While he may not be as fast or as graceful as Bruce Lee, his fighting style is more severe and his beatings more brutal, creating a whole different sort of dynamic on screen. He hisses as a cobra before striking deadly blows to his rivals who explode into pools of blood. Chiba’s character, Terry Tsurugi, is unlike the marital arts heroes before him. Gone is the sense of honor that previous heroes had. Terry has no morals and his actions are mainly motivated by greed and arrogance. The film quickly establishes Terry’s brutality by the inhumane way he treats his rival, Tateki’s, younger siblings, completely washing away any thoughts in the viewer that there may be a heroic man inside Terry’s tough shell. Don’t fool yourself. There isn’t. Terry Tsurugi is an evil, heartless bastard. However, in order to get the audience to route for such an unmoral character, the writers quickly establish which side is good and which side is bad. Terry happens to be working for the side of good. This doesn’t make him good, but he is fighting the good fight…for a price. Terry is motivated by greed while his “enemy,” Tateki, is motivated by revenge. In the end it all comes down to who the audience feels the lesser of two evils are. At some level it’s obvious, but on others the shades of grey start to meld into one another.
Breaking up the intensity of the film is Terry’s comical sidekick Rakuda, played by Goichi Yamada. The jolly and plump Rakuda seems a bit out of place with the cruel and angry Terry, but he is completely loyal to Terry and is his only companion. Rakuda is a much needed character in the film, not only bringing good nature d humor relief to what is basically an intense and nasty film, but also adding a sense of pathos to the story and giving the audience a truly likeable character to care about. As the film unfolds, the connection between Terry and Rakuda is revealed, and, eventually, the audience is able to see through Rakuda that Terry does actually have feelings beyond rage. In a strange way, Rakuda humanizes Terry, allowing the viewer to see that there is still a feeling human being somewhere beyond his anger, greed and arrogance, allowing the audience to accept Terry despite his undesirable characteristics
Upon its North American release, The Street Fighter was not only successful but spawned two sequels of its own as well as had two separate film series spun out of it, Sister Street Fighter and Karate Warriors. Most importantly, The Street Fighter helped establish Sonny Chiba as an international star. Although he began his career over a decade earlier in Japan, to a certain extent it was Sonny Chiba that helped fill the void that Bruce Lee’s death left in the Asian action cinema genre, and as a result gained an entire cult following of his own. Bruce Lee may be the legend, but Sonny Chiba became the hardest working man in Asian cinema during the 70’s. The Street Fighter is a perfect introduction to the incredible world of Sonny Chiba.