Friday, January 29, 2010


If the Toei studio in the 1970s was Japan's answer to Hollywood's Warner Bros. studio in the 1930s, as I believe, then Sonny Chiba was Toei's answer to James Cagney. He was the Japanese studio's embodiment of charismatic thuggishness, and as a martial arts specialist, he was a kind of amalgam of Cagney's gangster brutality and his dancer's grace. And if Toei was the Warner Bros. of 1970s Japan, it's no surprise to see them doing biopics. Chiba was the Toei biopic specialist, at least when it came to portraying famous martial artists of the recent past, but in The Power of Aikido he yields the starring role to his younger brother, Jiro -- though you wouldn't know that from the way the film is sold in the U.S.

Spot the star: is it obvious choice Sonny Chiba or brother Jiro in the lead role?

Gekitotsu! Aikido (the first word echoes the original Japanese title for The Street Fighter) purports to tell the story of Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of the title discipline. It opens in the late 1920s (the beginning of the Showa era, i.e. Emperor Hirohito's reign) with Ueshiba ("leader" to his pupils) running a "reclamation farm" in Hokkaido. He has something of a mistress, Ms. Mine, while his wife stays in the big city. He tries to toughen up his men by putting them through rigorous training, consisting of him beating them up. But as it turns out, his fighting skills are rather weak. He learns this when he shelters a runaway boy from the Hokkai Group's massage parlor. He handles the gangsters easily enough when they come to reclaim the boy, but when their enforcer Natori Shinbei (Sonny Chiba) intervenes Ueshiba gets a major beatdown. During the battle Mine suffers some collateral damage that will have repercussions later.

When Ueshiba's wife finally comes to the farm, Mine makes a hasty exit, but this proves to be for health reasons. When Shinbei hitches a ride on the same wagon she's on, he learns of her chest pains and feels guilty for causing them. He falls in love with her and disappears from the film for time to tend to her. Meanwhile, the humiliated Ueshiba is determined to learn as many martial arts as he can until he can avenge himself by beating Shinbei's karate. One of his would-be mentors is a disgruntled master named Kenzo Okita, who warns him that cronyism too often determines the top positions in the martial arts world. But in time we learn that Okita really protests too much, blaming others for his faults. He's a vicious drunk who cuts a naval officer's arm off in a fit of pique after announcing, "Everything is under my control, even though I'm drunk!"

Okita disarms an offending official -- literally.

Later, after learning to swallow an enemy's attack with his own, Ueshiba tests himself by challenging Shinbei's older brother, who runs a prestigious dojo. Ueshiba beats this overrated fighter so badly that the sensei kills himself. When the news reaches Shinbei he feels obliged to seek revenge, but the dying Mine dissuades him. Instead, Shinbei challenges Ueshiba to a friendly match, but their plans are interrupted by the elder brother's former students, who have hired Okita to kill Ueshiba by any means necessary -- by hand, sword or gun.

I liked how this movie, directed by Street Fighter helmer Shigehiro Ozawa, set up characters who prove more complex than first impressions suggest. Natori Shinbei at first looks like the villain of the piece, but ends up a sympathetic character, while Okita at first looks like a sympathetic victim of the system, but proves a real villain. Giving the hero two major antagonists also helps solve a stardom problem. This is the sort of film where Sonny Chiba shouldn't really win the final fight, but in 1975 do you really want him to lose a fight? Answer: have the fight interrupted by the bad guy and give Sonny a chance to go out a hero without beating the hero.

Somebody's about to get a serious beating as a warmup for Sonny's final showdown with the hero.

While Aikido is part of a Toei martial-biopic genre that includes Sonny Chiba's Mas Oyama trilogy and his Killing Machine one-shot, his supporting presence in this film gives it an air of exploitation, as if the studio knew it needed him to put the project over even if someone else was the ostensible star. Also exploitative is the late appearance of Chiba protege Etsuko "Sister Street Fighter" Shihomi as an admiral's daughter who becomes one of Ueshiba's first students. The last half hour gives her opportunities to humilate a trio of Japanese marines and at least half a dozen would-be avengers of Shinbei's mother in fight scenes that are utterly irrelevant to the main story. But this sort of gratuitous mayhem isn't really unwelcome in a martial arts film, even one as relatively well-concerned with character development as this one.

Who am I kidding? You can probably come up with a funnier caption for this one than I can.

The mayhem here isn't as grotesque as Chiba and Co. usually get, though. While Sonny himself gets one of his patented grimacing kills, he displays no internal organs as trophies, and Okita's arm-chopping exploit is the goriest bit in the picture. The typical Toei gore may not have been deemed appropriate for a film dedicated to the comparatively pacific "defensive power" of aikido, but there's still plenty of action to keep this interesting for martial-arts fans.


venoms5 said...

Great review, Sam! I've yet to see this. I've been looking for this one and Sonny Chiba's werewolf movie he did called WOLFGUY: THE FLAMING LYCANTHROPE. He sets people on fire when he touches them so I hear.

Samuel Wilson said...

venom5: I should mention that I saw a letterboxed, English-subtitled version from Videoasia's Top Fighters collection. It appears to have been taken from a Toei DVD or some other proprietary presentation, since the Toei logo (if I recognized it accurately) shows up in the lower right corner of the screen every so often.

venoms5 said...

Toei has their own cable channel that airs nothing but Toei productions and television shows. I participated in subtitling their KAGE NO GUNDAN 2 series starring Sonny Chiba. A friend of mine has connections in Japan and they recorded the series for him.