Why you should care
Because you don’t know what mean is until you meet him!
Big quasi-prehistoric monsters crushing cars, cities and entire urban populations? The Japanese owned that shit, and the globe couldn’t pay enough for the wonders that were (and are: The just-released Godzilla Resurgence is killing it at the box office) Godzilla.
Nose-thumbing, cat-meowing kung fu fighters? Sir Run Run Shaw and Chinese cinema found their martial arts messiah in Bruce Lee and launched a global economy connected to roundhouse kicks and nunchakus, a move that had them making so much money that those interested in making money started to take note.
Specifically: The Japanese, whose historical interest in both martial arts and beating up the Chinese goes back a long way. So with that in mind, they crafted a killer vehicle about a killer — not surprisingly — who couldn’t lose. Terry, their half-Chinese, half-Japanese killer, hit the screen in 1974, actioned by Japanese martial artist Sonny Chiba in a movie called simply, The Street Fighter.
“It’s a cultural counterpunch, if you will,” said Bob Calhoun, film critic and author of Shattering Conventions: Commerce, Cosplay, and Conflict on the Expo Floor, “like a kind of karate nationalism. Japanese karate had taken it in the teeth from so many Bruce Lee movies by that time that Sonny Chiba was the answer.”
If you find raw, unbridled power and unfettered rage compelling, no matter how threadbare the story? Then, yes. Entertaining.
How much of an answer? So much of an answer that The Street Fighter was slapped with an X rating for extreme violence. And this was a movie, mind you. “I haven’t seen any movies since then, or even before then,” said Judge Roy Bean, writer and fighter, “that had both throat-tearing-out and testicle-tearing-offing.” The Street Fighter story, as it was, involves Chiba’s character, Terry, going up against gangsters he had worked for, convicted murderers, sex traffickers and other malefactors. Since Terry himself is not the world’s sweetest guy, it’s pretty much a case of workplace violence. But, oh, the violence.
X-ray shots of head strikes culminating with projectile blood vomiting to multiple broken bones and teeth weren’t even half the story, since what was even more intimidating was Chiba himself. Gone was the relatively playful Bruce Lee. In Chiba you had a big, angry bone-crusher of a man, and like the movie’s tagline said, “You don’t know what mean is until you meet him.” “Chiba goes where other action stars don’t,” Calhoun laughs, referencing the oft-made comparisons of Chiba to Death Wish–era Charles Bronson. “I mean, testicle-ripping is not just a major part of Chiba’s arsenal. It’s who he is.”
But as grim as it might sound and despite all of the ratings battles that got an uncut version shaved down to an R rating, the movie itself — in whatever version — is a chaotic, roiling festival of just crazy, almost joyous, testosterone. Which is why Tarantino describes it as one of the best grind house movies ever and even went so far as casting Chiba in his Kill Bill epic later.
Best grind house movie? Calhoun disagrees, not with the greatness of Chiba, but the best vehicle for the greatness of Chiba. “My favorite of his is probably Karate for Life, because of the whole lucha libre/pro wrestling angle. I mean, Chiba battling masked wrestlers? That’s entertainment,” Calhoun said.
If you find intensity entertaining? Yes. If you find raw, unbridled power and unfettered rage compelling, no matter how threadbare the story? Then, yes. Entertaining.
”It’s the closest corollary for life I’ve yet to find,” said Bean. “Just chaos, chaos, confusion and a big Japanese guy screaming at you.”