The Street Fighter Trilogy (1974)

Director: Shigehiro Ozawa

Running Time: 91, 82, & 83 Minutes

Certification: 18

Starring: Sonny Chiba, Masafumi Suzuki, Masashi Ishibashi, Yutaka Nakajima, Yōko Ichiji, Reiko Ike 

1974 was a big year for Shin'ichi "Sonny" Chiba, as the Japanese martial artist starred in seven films which included both of The Executioner films. Also released that year was Chiba's breakthrough international hit, The Street Fighter, along with its two sequels and spin-off film, Sister Street Fighter. After Arrow Video released the spin-off and its subsequent follow-ups on physical media, they have completed the series by releasing The Street Fighter Trilogy.

The Street Fighter sees the Yakuza and the Mafia trying to hire Takuma Tsurugi (Chiba) to kidnap Sarai (Yutaka Nakajima), the beautiful heiress daughter of a recently deceased oil tycoon. After the groups refuse to pay Tsurugi's high fee, their attempts to kill the assassin motivates him to protect the heiress. This feature made history in the U.S. by being the first film to receive an X rating purely because of its violence, particularly a scene where Tsurugi castrates a rapist with his bare hands. It's an attention-grabbing moment amidst a fantastic showcase, both for the martial-arts prowess and the grisly violence delivered so bloodily.

Tsurugi is an anti-hero motivated by money, unrepentant about the nasty depths he takes to receive payment. The simmering fury is felt within Chiba's performance, inhabiting the characters with a self-assurance and little regard for other's lives. This is depicted in bone-crunching fashion which leaves his enemies in bloody pulps, although his bravura is tested in the film's best fight, as he faces Master Masaoka (Masafumi Suzuki) in an effort to prove his skills.

His biggest antagonist is an enemy of his own making, from the opening where Tsurugi frees from prison the formidable Shinkenbaru (Masashi Ishibashi). He was hired by Shikenbaru's siblings before discovering they cannot pay the full amount, leading to Tsurugi accidentally killing the former prisoner's brother and selling the sister into sexual slavery. It's a step too far in characterising the lead, as the attempts to depict him as an anti-hero instead colour him as an unrepentant monster whose actions are never questioned.

In Return of the Street Fighter, Tsurugi uncovers an extortion racket behind the construction of a new karate dojo, uniting a corrupt dojo master with the American mafia. What unfolds is a never-ending assault on the lead, as he cannot get peace wherever he goes because an attack can strike from any direction. It's a compelling way to frame the action, particularly when the fights remain terrific spectacles worth watching. Aiding the scenes are the various ways characters are killed, from being hit in the head so hard somebody's eyes pop out, to being stabbed with a gun. It's telling that this sequel was released two-and-a-half-months after the original, offering a reason for why this 82-minute film feels padded out with flashbacks from the first films scenes.

In The Street Fighter’s Last Revenge, Tsurugi reacts to his employers double-crossing him by stealing a cassette tape which incriminates government figures in corruption. Many figures react by trying to get their hands on the tape, including ambitious prosecutor Kunigami (Kôji Wada). The impressive displays of martial arts prowess do a lot of heavy lifting, as there's little interest in other elements, particularly the thin corruption plot. There's a goofier tone compared to the previous films, particularly when a henchman attacks using a hidden laser that he disguises as telekinesis, while the action feels notably toned-down despite a decapitation and a live cremation.

It's interesting to see how elements change across the trilogy, particularly the relationships Tsurugi has. He holds a genuine bond with his assistant Rakuda (Goichi Yamada), while mutual respect brings alive his scenes against Dinsau (Rinichi Yamamoto), an antagonist with his own sense of honour. Such relationships are missed in following instalments, as there's little to the madcap Boke (Yôko Ichiji), while the third film's treatment of women is outright insulting. Between a lone-wolf killer introduced as a formidable foe before she's reduced to just praise Tsurugi, and criminal member Aya (Reiko Ike) only existing as a nude seductress, they only appear as props to serve the men.

What's curious is how the lead's characterization changes after his initial appearance, as though the filmmakers are trying to walk back his deplorable elements while glossing over his worse actions. This begins with genuine growth as he cares for Master Masaoka, the only man Tsurugi believes understands him, although there's little else to him outside of scowling. Perhaps the confusion of characterization is why such bizarre changes are made for the third film, treating him like a master secret agent who dons disguises which includes Mission: Impossible style masks, while able to locate enemies whose identity he does not know and escape a seemingly inescapable trap. 

As much as things change across this trilogy, familiar elements do also appear. A particularly noticeable one is how the conflicts occur because a villainous group believe Tsurugi "knows too much" about their plans, leading to a body-count which retrospectively proves the best course of action would've been to simply walk away. The series comes apart at the seams by the third film, yet one expects worse considering the entire trilogy was released across nine-months. For those wanting to explore Sonny Chiba's works, this is an avenue worth exploring.

The Street Fighter Trilogy is available on Blu-Ray now from Arrow Video

The Street Fighter

Return of the Street Fighter

The Street Fighter's Last Revenge