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.
Spot the star: is it obvious choice Sonny Chiba or brother Jiro in the lead role?
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.
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.
Somebody's about to get a serious beating as a warmup for Sonny's final showdown with the hero.
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.
Who am I kidding? You can probably come up with a funnier caption for this one than I can.