I’ve reviewed and enjoyed Sonny Chiba’s three STREET FIGHTER movies (THE STREET FIGHTER, RETURN OF THE STREET FIGHTER and THE STREET FIGHTER’S LAST REVENGE), so now it’s time to get started on the SISTER STREET FIGHTER quadrilogy. It was marketed (at least in the U.S.) as a spin-off of the other series, but star Etsuko “Sue” Shihomi is not playing her character from THE STREET FIGHTER, or her other character from THE STREETFIGHTER’S LAST REVENGE, and Chiba is in it not playing “Terry” Tsuguri. There’s no narrative connection, but it is in a similar vein of funky contemporary karate blast full of fun comic book gimmicks, cool ‘70s fashion and exaggerated violence.
Shihomi (GOLGO 13: ASSIGNMENT KOWLOON) plays Koryu, a Hong Kong martial artist who gets sent to Yokohama to search for her brother Mansei (Hiroshi Miyauchi, Kamen Rider, Go Ranger, Spider Man, REBORN FROM HELL II: JUBEI’S REVENGE), a narcotics agent who disappeared while undercover in a heroin smuggling ring. Kuryo has other family there. She beats up some assholes in front of her restaraunteur uncle (Hiroshi Kondo, GRAVEYARD OF HONOR, WOLF GUY), who is delighted that she’s “still a tomboy,” and cousins (Tatsuya Nanjo [TOKYO DEEP THROAT] and Nami Tachibana), who ask her for lessons and tell her she’s famous in Japan as the Hong Kong Martial Arts Champ. (Nobody else seems to recognize her.)
I think they wrote her as a Hong Konger because the studio, Toei, originally planned for Angela Mao to star, but Kuryo seems to be Japanese, like the actress who plays her. But she’s still a fish out of water, or just a cool non-conformist, because she shows up in the city where everybody wears ultra-’70s rainbow-colored polyester, bell bottoms, visors and sailor hats and shit, and she has no qualms about going everywhere in a beautiful blue Tang suit with cool red dragon embroidery on the front, neck and sleeves.
At the time it was not known that that was Mushu from MULAN.
So that’s what she wears to Club Mandarin, a hip strip club where she’s supposed to look for a rose as a signal from her brother’s partner Fang Shing (Xie Xiu-Rong). She spots it – it’s a thigh tattoo – just in time to see Fang kidnapped. She chases and beats up a bunch of the dudes, but some dude (Sonny Chiba, ACES: IRON EAGLE 4) drives up and abucts Fang from the abductors.
Kuryo goes to her brother’s shorinji kempo sensei Fujita (Asao Uchida, LONE WOLF AND CUBs SWORD OF VENGEANCE and BABY CART IN PERIL) at his school, where she sees the dude played by Chiba training. Turns out he’s a good guy, Hibiki, and he took Fang to hide her at his girlfriend’s ballet school. I know, I was scared too but don’t worry, it’s a normal ballet school for dancing and not a witch coven like in SUSPIRIA.
The discipline on display at the kempo and ballet schools stand in stark contrast to the excessive lifestyle of the villain, Kakuzaki (Bin Amatsu, THE BAD NEWS BEARS GO TO JAPAN). He somehow passes for a legitimate businessman running Central Trader Co. Ltd., exporter of wigs with heroin hidden in them. But he’s an extravagant weirdo who lives in a mansion with cave-like tunnels and a dungeon beneath it, surrounded by a menagerie of martial arts experts from around the world, representing different styles, weapons and especially outfits.
Even his suit-wearing employees like Hayashi (Shohei Yamamoto, CYBER NINJA) often find themselves standing in a normal office watching a bunch of dudes in crazy robes fighting with shuriken and shit. But the real action is when Kakuzaki’s lounging at his giant swimming pool in a bathrobe and shades, playing chess, drinking champagne and smoking cigars while there’s a couple dozen people swinging different weapons around. There’s a chubby guy deadlifting, a guy in a bright red gi over a mesh shirt breaking cinder blocks with nunchakas, even a white lady doing katas: “EVA PARRISH: SOUTHERN HEMISPHERE KARATE CHAMPION.” I’m guessing that might be her real name, but my Google searches only bring up references to the movie.
Some of his associates have interesting costumes, like this squad of SILENT HILL Pyramid Head dudes.
They seem to acknowledge the inconvenience of the helmets by frequently taking them off. I also need to mention “The Amazon Seven” – female Thai kickboxers whose outfits look straight out of The Flintstones. And there’s a blow gun expert, shirtless with a mohawk and a shield that could’ve been stolen from the Jungle Cruise ride. When he’s on a roof shooting into a window a pet bird gets killed in the crossfire.
These fighters, of course, fuel the movie. Often when they first appear they freeze frame and their specialties flash on the screen in giant letters. Many work as henchmen, sent to attack people for Kakuzaki, but it seems pretty clear he just thinks they make a cool entourage. He openly calls them his “pets” and says he buys them like other rich men buy race horses. “I keep unusual humans instead of animals. It amuses me,” he says as he walks over to make out with the belly of a sunbather in a bikini.
Wikipedia cites ENTER THE DRAGON as the cinematic inspiration for the video game that happens to be called Street Fighter, but it sure does have a similar vibe to this movie. They’ve got the different nationalities, a shirtless guy with a short mohawk, a guy with a claw. Combine Kuryo’s hair buns from the opening scene with her white and blue outfit in the last act and you would think she was a Chun-Li cosplayer. Anyway, it’s a silly video game or cartoon level I enjoy seeing movies operate on.
Of course, it’s a silly video game or cartoon that was originally rated X in the U.S. At first I thought it wasn’t gory like the STREET FIGHTER series, but that changes as things ramp up for the great finale. She twists Hayashi’s head backwards and he stays alive long enough to slowly walk down some stairs as everyone watches in horror. There are some blood geysers. There’s a little bit of the usual rapey-ness of the genre – thankfully not that much, or directed at Kuryo. And multiple characters get really messed up from being shot up with heroin against their will. This is what’s been happening to her brother Mansei, who she learns is alive in the dungeon right before she’s knocked off a bridge (depicted with a pretty funny dummy drop). Everybody assumes she’s dead, and when she shows up again there’s no explanation of how she survived, but that’s okay. We knew that shit wouldn’t kill her.
I like that most of the climax is a battle inside the asshole’s mansion, with blades going into his pretty walls. At one point she falls through a trap door and they hang her upside down over a bed of pointy glass, with a candle burning the rope, but you know she lands on her feet. It’s exciting when Hibiki and friends show up to back her up, though I’m sure she would’ve figured out how to kill all those guys on her own. And he makes a chauvinistic comment at one point. Not to her, lucky for him.
In the end it turns out Kakuzaki can fight – shirtless, with striped pants, and a claw like Han in ENTER THE DRAGON. Yes, she kills him (spoiler), but she doesn’t save her brother. It ends solemnly, with her crying, watching the sunset, her white suit stained in blood. I hope she’ll be feeling better by part 2, which came out four months later.
The director, Kazuhiko Yamaguchi, had not done martial arts movies before, but he went on to direct the two official sequels, plus Chiba’s KARATE BULLFIGHTER, KARATE BEAR FIGHTER and KARATE FOR LIFE. The script is credited to Norifumi Suzuki (BEAUTIFUL GIRL HUNTER, SHOGUN’S NINJA) and Masahiro Kakefuda (HORRORS OF MALFORMED MEN, KARATE FOR LIFE), who starts out his interview on the Arrow blu-ray saying, “Well, I have a preference for erotic films, but I enjoy making karate films.” Without going too hard on them, I gotta say it’s not as good as the male STREET FIGHTER scripts. It doesn’t work as hard to fit clever tricks and surprises everywhere, and doesn’t even bother with a cool opening sequence – of course I like split screens of her doing moves in front of a blue backdrop with funky music playing, but the STREET FIGHTER movies would do that after a badass cold open to freeze frame title. Here they don’t bother. It goes directly to her in a boring office in front of a map getting exposition from a cop.
To be fair, it’s not long before she’s at a bar slapping around dudes in Hawaiian shirts who hit on her, impaling flies on toothpicks and throwing them into their mouths. And the overwhelming appeal of Shihomi more than makes up for any shortcomings in the story. She spider-crawls between walls, leaps over tall barbed-wire-topped fences, duels on top of big pointy rocks, swings on a chandelier. The ferocity of her karate juxtaposes well with her big cute eyes and youthful round face. Chiba recommended her for the part – she had joined his Japan Action Club while still in high school, training in stunts, gymnastics and martial arts. She was only 18 when she filmed the movie, and reportedly did all of her own stunts. But nobody refers to her as a kid or anything. Her youth is kind of beside the point.
I’m excited to have Sister Street Fighter in my life now, and I bought the box set, but I’m gonna ration them out. So I’ll see you for part 2 down the road a bit.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.