In which actress Etsuko Shiomi never stops kicking asses all over Japan…
By way of confession, not only had I never seen these films before, but I still haven’t seen the Street Fighter films from which these spun off. I suspect I was able to follow the proceedings here just fine without the context of those Sonny Chiba films, and I’m actually planning to review their recent home video collection shortly.
But I digress.
The Sister Street Fighter films, more than any other series or subgenre, has taught me the truest, purist meaning of the term “exploitation cinema”. Mind you, I’m quite well versed in exploitation movies, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a series so blatantly and fully committed to giving audiences exactly what the studio thinks they want. And what did Japanese audiences want in the early 1970s? Apparently, they wanted karate. Non-stop karate. Endless, furious, fabulous karate.
The Sister Street Fighter films are a karate-delivery mechanism par excellence. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a series of films so singularly focused on stringing fight scene upon fight scene in order to ensure that some 75% of total screen time of each film is dedicated solely to punches and kicks.
As they are spin off films, it appears the goal was to create a badass female version of Sonny Chiba’s karate expert from the original series and simply send her on action-packed missions. These films certainly live up to that vision. Koryu is portrayed by Etsuko Shiomi and she’s quite awesome. As much as these are blatant exploitation films loaded with blood spatter, nudity, and villainy of all kinds, Koryu is a pure soul throughout, existing to right wrongs and bring justice by kicking ass in respectfully designed outfits. Shiomi does a fantastic job with all the physical work and her bright, beaming face can give way to a grimace that means business at the drop of a hat.
More or less the plot of each Sister Street Fighter film involves Koryu being asked to leave Hong Kong and go to Japan in order to rescue someone or locate someone or find out information that only she can either because she’s a woman or because she’s the baddest fighter on earth. Koryu has almost no other qualities as a character. She’s a karate machine with the empathy that male leads weren’t often depicted with in the 1970s, and that’s about as deep as she’s written.
As such, as fun as the Sister Street Fighter films are, they’re a little bit of a rough watch when viewed back to back. There’s extremely little to distinguish one from the next in terms of plot or story. They’re a product for Toei Studios to sell to their karate-ravenous fans, and they certainly deliver on their promise. There’s no way I’m not going to enjoy a contemporary 1970s exploitation martial arts film, so Toei wasn’t wrong in their calculations. I’m happy to have watched the films and to now own them in a killer high definition box set from Arrow Video. I just wish Koryu had been a character with a little more nuance, and that her adventures had a little more variety to them rather than being virtually carbon copies of one another back to back to back.
SISTER STREET FIGHTER (1974)
As I haven’t seen the Street Fighter films yet, I’m not sure if this is true for them… but Sister Street Fighter actually feels very much like a Street Fighter video game. Villains are regularly introduced with title card freeze frames and they’ve got different looks and weapons that feel straight out of a Capcom character-generation engine.
In Koryu’s introductory adventure, she infiltrates a drug ring in order to locate her missing brother. She’s assisted by a character played by Sonny Chiba, giving this series a nod of approval for Street Fighter fans. Chiba isn’t playing the same person, however. Star Etsuko Shiomi was a protege of Chiba’s from his acting school and this was his opportunity to promote her as an up and coming talent.
This being the first of any Street Fighter series films I’d ever seen, I had a good time here. It’s sleazy, it’s violent, it’s hopelessly dated, and it’s precisely what the studio intended.
SISTER STREET FIGHTER: HANGING BY A THREAD (1974)
Koryu is once again called to Japan from Hong Kong, this time to rescue a friend from captivity. But soon she’s fighting for her own sister’s life against an evil crime boss.
Weirdly, throughout this series, there’s a bit of a mean streak in which there’s never any doubt whatsoever that Koryu will kick every last ass in the film… but she also kind of loses and/or fails at her missions pretty miserably. The characters she goes on missions to save often either die or the people she loves are pulled into danger because of her involvement. It’s a nasty streak that could’ve been interesting to explore if any time for character development had ever been a part of the formula for these films.
I like that this one gets a little sci-fi with a bad guy having secret plans hidden inside of a weird robotic eyeball which, of course, gets gouged out bloodily. Also I like that characters just start inexplicably having the ability to pretty much fly and the finale involves characters leaping into the air to fight in the sky.
RETURN OF THE SISTER STREET FIGHTER (1975)
Whoops, Koryu again has to go save a family member in trouble. This time it’s a cousin? By this point the plot machinations feel exhausting and the writers appear to be willing to throw together any scenario as long as Koryu is doing karate within moments of the film’s start. This time Koryu has a motorcycle-riding friend named Michi and she’s saddled with a cute kid named Rika in order to maybe put some maternal instincts on display for Koryu’s character development.
This time the evil crime boss wants to kill Koryu so bad he holds an entire tournament, to the death, in order to select the 4 fiercest fighters to defeat her. It’s a hilarious mini-Street Fighter video game sequence complete with offensive costumes representing fighters from other countries. The whole premise is hilarious because… why wouldn’t you just send ALL of your fighters after her? You’re literally letting your fighters kill each other to prove themselves instead of just… sending them after Koryu. Great stuff.
One noteworthy element of this film and the last is co-star Yasuake Kurata. In further evidence of how interchangeable each of these films are, Kurata plays co-lead in both the second and third films, but plays totally different characters that both end up being a male co-lead and badass fighter. Kurata is handsome and charismatic and it’s pretty cool that while the films both make him out to be a mysterious tough guy, Koryu still gets the spotlight and comes off as the toughest person on the planet regardless of gender.
FIFTH LEVEL FIST (1976)
Here in Fifth Level Fist we do get a fair amount of variety, which is refreshing. Not even technically a Sister Street Fighter film, this movie stars Etsuko Shiomi in a totally different role as a character named Kiku. There’s a hair less karate here and a smidge more of an interesting plot, so Fifth Level Fist was a pleasant way to end this adventure.
There’s a little more overt feminism happening in Fifth Level Fist, which is nice. Kiku is expected to be a good little buttoned down daughter, but she’s constantly rebelling against her parents and taking the law into her own hands against the wishes of this cop who wants to date her and keep her in the kitchen where he believes women belong. Kiku feels a little more wily and rebellious than Koryu, using disguises and such to get to the bottom of the corrupt deal that got her friend murdered. It ends up with characters going undercover on a movie set and I always love movies within movies.
I’m not sure why the film is wasn’t simply made as a direct Sister Street Fighter title originally, or how it ended up being lumped in with the other titles over time, but it’s a decent refresh of the formula that at least gave it a little spice to distinguish it from the other three films.
If you’re coming to these movies for karate… then you’ve come to the right place. There’s more karate in this 4 film set than I’ve ever seen anywhere. If you’re coming for highly distinct adventures that stand out from one another and have distinct personalities all their own… look elsewhere quickly. This set is really all about gathering all of these films into one collection, and as such I’m thrilled to own and experience them in that way. There’s some bonus content that gives context and the movies look solid as well. The set isn’t exactly stacked with bonus features, but delivers a comprehensive collection, which is what most of you are probably looking for.
And I’m Out.
Sister Street Fighter Collection is now available on Blu-ray from Arrow Video.