Shout Select puts the trilogy in its proper place
Terry Tsurugi is a dirty fighter.
And that’s why we love to watch him.
The Street Fighter films broke big in the United States, making “Sonny” (real name Shinichi) Chiba a household name in America even to this day. Capitalizing on the martial arts craze brought on by Bruce Lee, the Street Fighter films found an audience by being something fairly different from what Bruce Lee offered. For one thing, these are Japanese films (obviously), but these were also exploitation pictures. Sure, Enter The Dragon offered plenty of titillation, but The Street Fighter brought X-rated levels of brutality to the screen. Where Bruce Lee took on almost mythological status both on screen and off, The Street Fighter endowed Terry Tsurugi with near-invincibility, sending generations of kids off to play games where secret breathing techniques would allow them to survive car crashes and gunshot wounds and the like. Bruce had his signature yelps as he fought, Sonny brought the crazy aggressive/meditative breathing techniques that imbued supernatural strength. Plus he gouges out people’s eyeballs and rips out their throats. What’s not to love?
Brought over to the United States by then fledgling New Line Cinema, one can see why The Street Fighter trilogy would have fit right into the 42nd Street film culture of that time playing alongside pornos in gritty single screen movie theaters. There’s very little of the typical honor, good vs. evil, or righteous morality found in so many martial arts films. There’s a sequence that’s repeated in every single Street Fighter film which offers a bit of Terry’s “origin story”. He’s a little boy and his father is executed right before his very eyes as he’s called a worthless halfbreed. The sequence closes with this father imploring Terry, almost from beyond the grave, to never rely on anyone else and to never, ever, let anyone beat him. Generally after this flashback sequence plays out, Terry remembers his rage, his funky musical theme swells, he does his breathing technique, and he bounces back from near defeat with defiance and angry self-righteousness. That’s all we get in terms of how Terry became this deadly karate master… the rest of the screen time is filled with modern day antics.
IMDb indicates that all 3 Street Fighter films were made in 1974. That seems plausible that the entire trilogy was created in a single year. They’re silly and grimy and designed from the ground up for exploitative thrills. Behind the camera you’ve largely got similar creatives, with Shigehiro Ozawa directing all three and Koji Takada involved in writing each. In front of the camera, you’ve got a lot of similar players, with some actors in all three, and other actors playing entirely different characters from film to film, continuity be damned. The gang was assembled, the market was hungry, and Toei studios cranked out a trilogy in no time flat.
Much like the spin off Sister Street Fighter films, the individual films within the Street Fighter trilogy are a little bit challenging to distinguish from one another. Terry gets in a seemingly infinite amount of fights with various colorful villains, gangsters, politicians, and femme fatales. They’re set in modern times but feature wildly costumed villains straight out of samurai films (there’s even an American magician and strongman dressed like… a mariachi?). Terry swings wildly from rage-filled murderer to crusader with a code, and back again. He’s a true cinematic lone wolf who can be hard to root for at times, but damn if that swelling theme song and supernatural rebound won’t make you cheer when Terry bounces back from certain death only to pluck a dude’s throat flesh right out of his neck. (Or that one time when he tears a rapists testicles clean off complete with on screen gory bits).
Sonny Chiba does make all of this possible. He’s not quite Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan. His swagger is unique, his character hard to pin down, his charisma sometimes off-putting, but always present. One can see how Bob Shaye at New Line could screen dozens, if not hundreds, of Toei pictures in search of just the right films to buy for US distribution, and land on these films starring Sonny Chiba. Like the Lone Wolf And Cub films produced around the same time and similarly ported over to thrill American audiences, there’s an over the top level of blood, sex, and ridiculousness that the star sells and which can feel highly satisfying to watch. Chiba himself makes it clear in interviews found right on this new release that he didn’t care for the character of Terry and disliked his lack of honor in the practice of martial arts. Chiba didn’t care for the ultraviolence and in life believes deeply in the connection between strength of character and mastery of the martial arts. Nonetheless, he truly seems to give his portrayal of Terry Tsurugi his all in an occasionally almost animalistic performance.
Overall I enjoyed the Street Fighter trilogy a fair bit more than I enjoyed the Sister Street Fighter films. While the plots suffer a similar structure here as in those films of simply stringing together excuses for another fight scene, Chiba’s Street Fighter films are more bizarre, more over the top, and actually do feature a character or two that stand out beyond Terry himself. Etsuko Shiomi, the titular Sister Street Fighter, does a wonderful job anchoring those films, but they offer very little else beyond her physical star power. There’s a murderer’s row of bizarre villains in The Street Fighter films which just pop a little bit more, and the gory nature of the violence here buries itself a little deeper in your psyche than the endless karate of the Sister films. Plus, you get Etsuko Shiomi in 2 of the Chiba-led films anyway! (Playing two different, unrelated, and ill-fated side characters).
I’m thrilled to have finally worked my way through The Street Fighter trilogy. I’d attempted it before but always found such awful video quality that I simply couldn’t stomach it. Now Shout Select brings us a gorgeous 2K transfer and puts them all together in a set that makes these films imminently watchable, and treats them with the respect they deserve. It’s possible American audiences have never seen these films look like this, as I have a feeling those 42nd street prints of yore weren’t exactly treated gingerly. The Street Fighter will appeal to martial arts and action fans, exploitation fans, and even those who simply adore the over the top era of 1970s spy thrillers.
Containing The Street Fighter, Return Of The Street Fighter, and The Street Fighter’s Last Revenge, each film gets its own disc featuring original US and Japanese trailers. The trailers are quite unique as they’re selling to different audiences. I chose to watch the first two films in their dubbed American versions. I almost never opt to watch dubbed films, but I’ve always viewed the Street Fighter films through the lens of an American film fan and really enjoyed experiencing these films the way Americans would have in the 1970s. The dubbing just felt right. The final film of this collection offers both a US and a Japanese Cut. I chose to watch the Japanese Cut here as my understanding was that some of the violence was cut from the American port. Oddly, the final film almost felt the least violent of the three, but I was glad to see it uncut and also to hear the original language track on that final film.
As mentioned in the review, Chiba participated in a new interview for this release, and there’s an interview with filmmaker Jack Sholder who was responsible for cutting the US trailers for these films for New Line and more or less marketing these pictures to the US audience. Both interviews are fascinating and while they’re the only major bonus content outside of the trailers, it feels like just the right amount.
And I’m Out.
The Street Fighter Collection is now available on Blu-ray from Shout Select