Saturday, June 14, 2008

The Executioner (1974)

I've always been a fan of the grindhouse and the more outlandish the film the better. Some of my fondest memories of childhood were going to the Bluebird Theater in downtown Petersburg, VA with my dad to go and watch the latest martial arts epic.

In the seventies, Toei Films seemed to pioneer the "anything you can do we can do better" spirit that the Japanese have pretty much honed to razor sharpness, and that spirit trancends all aspects of Japanese society.

If you build a great car, the Japanese will make it more fuel efficient.

If you start a great trend, the Japanese will find a way to drag your fad out five years longer than it should probably last.

If you make a great exploitation film. The Japanese will find a way to make it more violent than you could have ever imagined.

Legit badass Sonny Chiba was a busy man in the seventies and Toei Films was a busy studio. The now famous Street Fighter trilogy arguably began as a Japanese effort not only to break into the Asian martial arts movie market, but also as a serious effort to find inroads to the American b-movie market. B-movies don't win Oscars but they do tend to make enough money to keep studio books in the black until something else comes along. When in doubt, make an action movie.

My journey with Teruo Ishii's karate schlock classic, The Executioner, has been bittersweet. I've always lived with the assumption that movies such as The Executioner were a lot of fun to make for cast and crew alike. With such hilarious dialogue and outrageous action, how could anyone ever have a horrible time on that set?

However my follow-up research on Ishii revealed that Ishii actually despised working on karate movies. Ishii is best known in Japan for his film adoptations of the mystery novels of author, Edogawa Rampo. However the ironclad contract that Toei had with Ishii had the poor bastard directing everything from space operas to yakuza movies.

Subsequently, The Executioner represents Teruo Ishii's best effort to get himself reassigned by creating the most insane martial arts film of the age. However as Yogi Berra once said, "Irony can be pretty ironic sometimes," and it is Ishii's blatant contempt for every frame of this movie that makes it so fun to watch.

The Executioner tells a pretty simple story. In an effort to combat a vicious heroin smuggling ring, former Tokyo Metro Police commissioner, Arashiyama (Ryo Ikebe), and his smoking hot niece, Emi (Yutaka Nakajima.. did I mention that she was smoking hot back in the day?) secretly recruit a trio of criminals to whoop ass and take names. The unit consists of Ichiro Sakura (Eiji Go), a karate expert and all-around pervert, Takeshi Hayabusa (Makoto Satô), a disgrased police detective now working as an assassin specializing in smashing the skulls of crime lords, and Ryuichi Koga (Sonny Chiba), a ninja enforcer that will pretty much do anything if the price is right.

And if you're wondering, "Hey.. I wonder if the 'Koga' they're referring to are..."

Yep, it's those Koga.

This is by far the most violent movie I've ever seen Chiba involved in, and possibly the most enjoyable. The Executioner is definitely one of Ishii's more coherant martial arts epics. Ishii's professional shame is your boon as there is enough blood, boobs, and camp to satisfy even the most jaded exploitation movie junkie.

If there is a failing in this movie, it is the collective persona of our trio of karate vigilantes.

There is an almost tragic yet endearing quality about Chiba's iconic Street Fighter, Takuma Tsurugi. Tsurugi is honorable to a fault and his honor, coupled with the everyman desire to see that the rent is paid on time by any means necessary, often leads Takuma down the wrong path. By contrast, Etsuko Shiomi's Koryo Lee, aka the Sister Street Fighter, is as virginal beyond belief as a girl that kicks people to death can reasonably be.

However in The Executioner, Koga and company are not the criminals with hearts of gold as you'd come to expect in such scenarios. Arashiyama definitely picked the right crew since his goal is to fight fire with fire, but if it weren't for their superior striking skills it really wouldn't bother me if these guys died in the attempt to keep narcotics off of the mean streets of Tokyo.

Part of Ishii's master plan to get himself back to directing mystery movies must've been to sabotage this movie by making Koga, Sakura, and Hayabusa as unlikeable as possible in addition to being completely irredeemable.

This is a pretty minor fault and is cleanly overshadowed by the outstanding amount of kick-ass brutality found in this eighty-six minute gem of a Japanese exploitation movie.

Go, rent, be amazed.


Ash said...

Huh. I had no idea that the director that did BOHACHI BUSHIDO also did Sonny Chiba films. Truly a man of many hats. Also, I have no idea what Koga are.

You know, I've never been particularly excited about checking out a Sonny Chiba martial arts flick--I guess I just assumed that they were Bruce Lee knock-off flicks, only more humorless. Your review actually has me interested, so I've added this to my Ziplist (the closest thing we've got in Canada to a Netflix queue.)

J.T. said...

The Koga in question are the Koga ninja clan. I think the Iga ninja clan are more heralded in history, legend and pop culture but the Koga get their due also.

And man, Ishii has pretty much done it all when it comes to covering genre. It's a shame that apparently he hated about 60% of his work.