I didn’t know how bad I needed Sonny Chiba in my life. Truthfully, I didn’t know much about him before he passed due to complications from COVID-19 in August of 2021, but I knew the name, and eventually got around to seeing some of his movies.
I started with The Street Fighter, a 1974 martial arts film that represented his first foray into international stardom when it was picked up for distribution by New Line Cinema (which also renamed Shinichi as Sonny). Notably, this was an unusual film for the time because it received an X-rating by the MPAA due only to its violence.
Have you ever seen an old Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan martial arts movie and thought it was pretty awesome, but you wished it could have been as gory as a Saw movie? Then The Street Fighter is the film (and the series) for you.
The film’s legendary gory spectacle is certainly worth the price of admission (which is free if you don’t mind sitting through a few ads on Tubi). The movie never ceases to come up with creative ways for its star to dispose of Yakuza thugs. He might punch someone’s teeth out, he might induce vomiting by hitting someone in the stomach, or he may throw someone over a balcony into a pool of blood. And somehow I’m not even giving the best ones away, because this is one of those movies that you have to see to believe.
I first saw The Street Fighter when my co-host and I selected movies to cover on a podcast, and I haven’t looked back since. I had to watch the whole trilogy. Then, I had to buy the entire trilogy on Blu-Ray released by Shout Factory, and I didn’t even own a Blu-Ray player yet.
Well, I do now, and now that I’ve seen the entire trilogy, I’m happy to report that it’s pretty great. It’s not without its flaws, though. All three films were released in Japan in 1974, and the second one in particular – Return of the Street Fighter – seems absolutely rushed, with numerous filler scenes of large groups practicing karate and text on screen coming up to tell us what this is. But at the end of the day, Takuma Tsurugi (or Terry if you go by the English dub) still forces a dude’s eyes out of their sockets, so it can’t all be bad.
And that’s really the story here with this trilogy. Even while it fails in a lot of ways, it still manages to surprise you. You’d thought you’d have seen everything, and then suddenly you realize you hadn’t, and you can’t wait for what’s to come next. I talked about this in the aforementioned podcast episode, how the first film had a perfect escalation of violence. It starts with a simple fight scene, the first real moment of blood comes from someone jumping out a highrise, and eventually we get to a dramatic bloodbath aboard a ship in a storm. The sequels don’t quite have the same impact because, well, they’re sequels.
But all three movies are worth watching, and it’s certainly easy to see Sonny Chiba’s appeal as an action star. His character may feel wildly different in the two sequel films and part of what makes the original so compelling is just how mean and menacing his character is, but that Sonny Chiba death stare that he gives is just the stuff of legends.All three films appear to have found a permanent home on Tubi insomuch as anything on streaming is permanent these days. As has the spinoff series Sister Street Fighter, which features both Sonny Chiba and his co-star from the first and third Street Fighter films, Etsuko Shihomi. So I definitely know what I’ll be watching soon.