To experience recent Japanese cultural history through the films of the era is to see the 1970s hit the country like a freight train. The Japanese film and TV juggernaut Toei was in full-on exploitation mode, producing sex-and gore-filled “Pinky Violence” flicks like Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion and School of the Holy Beast.
Alongside the pink film movement—that was happening on a wider scale, not contained entirely within Toei—one actor started showing up with increasing regularity: Shin’ichi “Sonny” Chiba. He’s recognizable to American audiences as Hattori Hanzo from Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill collection, but the guy’s been in Japanese action films since the beginning of the ‘60s.
Chiba’s martial arts skills are no joke, as he founded his own school for actors and stuntmen to train in fisticuffs. One of his biggest hits—and his first taste of international success—was 1974’s The Street Fighter, a gory martial arts movie big enough to start two separate film series.
While the direct follow-up Return of the Street Fighter would come in 1975, the movie got a spiritual sequel the same year as its release in Sister Street Fighter, starring Etsukko Shihomi. Shihomi—who had a smaller part in the previous film and was picked for the role by Chiba himself—plays Li Koryu, a kickass young woman looking for her brother, a detective who went missing while on the trail of a drug kingpin. Her brother turns out to be in serious trouble, and Koryu has to battle her way through dozens of oddball villains to get to the center of the plot.
The main bad guy keeps an incredibly wide variety of henchmen on his payroll, and before the movie’s tight 86-minute runtime is through, we see Koryu battle an evil priest with a speargun, a traditional Buddhist monk who commands his own private army of men wearing wicker baskets on their heads, an incredibly amped dude with multiple nunchucks and The Amazon Seven, a group of kickboxers dressed up like the Flintstones and sporting pristine Chuck Taylors.
The film, in case you couldn’t tell, is incredibly goofy. A man monologues about how he once killed a dozen bulls with his bare hands in South America. Wigs are sprinkled with heroin powder in what might be the most poorly thought-out drug trafficking plan in film history. An African tribesman with a shield and blowgun murders a woman in a ballet studio. A woman is sexually menaced by a man I can only describe as Japanese Wayne Knight. Later, this dude gets punched in the gut so hard his intestines fall out. Average, run-of-the-mill martial arts stuff.
I’d love to dig a little deeper into Toei’s catalog for this column, but Sister Street Fighter is an excellent jumping-off point. And if you watch the movie and really want more, you’re in luck; not only did its Sonny Chiba-starring predecessor get multiple sequels, Shihomi would return for three additional Sister Street Fighter movies, each as fun and violent as the first.
The series can be bought in one deluxe package from Arrow Video, and the first film is rentable on Amazon.