ON DVD & BLU-RAY
Sister Street Fighter Collection (1974-1976) Blu Ray (Arrow)
The four Sister Street Fighter films spun off from the popular Street Fighter series of Japanese martial arts action flicks. The first three focus on the adventures of a Hong Kong female martial arts champion named Li Koryu (Etsuko Shiomi). The fourth is entirely unrelated to the others in terms of storyline but features the presence of Shiomi playing a different character.
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Sister Street Fighter (1974)
Etsuko Shiomi plays Li Koryu, a half-Japanese martial artist living in Hong Kong. She returns home to Tokyo in order to track down her older brother Mansei (Hiroshi Miyauchi), a drugs agent who has gone missing while undercover. Her trail leads her to crime kingpin Shigetomi Kakuzaki (Bin Amatsu). With the help of several family members plus the pupils of a local martial arts school, she sets out to rescue him from Kakuzaki’s lair.
If you enjoyed the Sonny Chiba-starring Street Fighter films then you’ll almost certainly enjoy this one too. If you’re not familiar with them then… well… imagine the kung fu movie equivalent of punk rock and you’re pretty much there. The martial arts sequences don’t match the graceful precision which was characteristic of Hong Kong’s entries in the genre, tending instead to rely heavily on wild camerawork (zooms and dutch angles galore), rapid edits, outrageous gore and even some freeze frame title cards introducing the characters’ various fighting techniques. The effects are pretty awful; watch out for the fake bats wobbling around on strings and an actor being supplanted by a very obvious dummy for a shot of their character falling into the sea. On the other hand, the rough edges lend the proceedings a distinctive charm. There’s a sense of human frailty in watching these actors occasionally straining to pull off certain moves which, in some ways, ends up being far more viscerally thrilling than the perfectionistic approach of the Shaw Brothers/Golden Harvest films.
There’s plenty of action here as Etsuko Shiomi takes on innumerable villainous henchmen suited up in truly daft-looking costumes. While Sonny Chiba from the original Street Fighter trilogy is given second-billing here (and was even top-billed on some posters during the original theatrical release), his role amounts to little more than a glorified cameo. Nonetheless, Shiomi fills his boots very effectively in her own engagingly plucky manner. There’s also an amazingly gruesome death inspired by The Exorcist where one man gets his head twisted through 180 degrees and staggers around for a while before expiring.
It’s an indisputable 1970s Japan-cheese classic which also comes with an invigorating soundtrack. Naturally, considering the era, it leans very heavily on the wah-wah pedal.
Runtime: 85 mins
Dir: Kazuhiko Yamaguchi
Script: Masahiro Kakefuda, Norifumi Suzuki
Starring: Etsuko Shiomi, Sonny Chiba, Asao Uchida, Sanae Ôhori, Bin Amatsu, Hiroshi Kondô, Hiroshi Miyauchi, Masashi Ishibashi
Sister Street Fighter: Hanging By A Thread (1974)
This sequel begins back in Hong Kong as Li Koryu (again played by Etsuko Shiomi) spots a man being pursued through an alleyway by a group of assailants. She decides to intervene and fight them off. The man attempts to reveal some crucial information to her but is hit by a deadly needle thrown by a nearby assassin. In his death throes, he pulls out his (false) eyeball and hands it to her. It contains a microfilm which she discovers to be filled with evidence of the undertakings of a Japanese smuggling gang. Amongst the incriminating footage, Koryu spots the face of her childhood friend Kotoe (Michiyo Bandô) and decides to head back to Japan to stay with her sister Hakuran (Tamayo Mitsukawa) while she hatches a rescue plan. Unbeknown to her, however, Hakuran is also involved with the gang.
Sister Street Fighter: Hanging By A Thread suffers from one fundamental issue: it is far too similar to its predecessor. The plot is a rehash with a handful of details changed, the filming style is pretty much the same and even some of the original’s supporting actors (such as Masashi Ishibashi) have been reused in near-identical roles. There’s no real growth or development in Koryu’s character or backstory; she’s just the same tough but fundamentally decent heroine who beats down one hench-baddie after another throughout most of the runtime.
One of the few notable differences is that the sadistic misogyny has been dialled up a notch or two: we see one woman’s buttocks being sliced open in close-up and another being tortured by having her flesh burnt and eyes gouged out. Sure, the original had its share of gory violence and even a rape scene but they weren’t dwelled upon with the same unpleasantly mean-spirited glee that is evident here.
To be fair, despite my criticisms above, it still delivers the requisite chopsocky action in spades. It’s just that it doesn’t quite have the same charm or invention as the first one did.
Runtime: 85 mins
Dir: Kazuhiko Yamaguchi
Script: Masahiro Kakefuda, Norifumi Suzuki
Starring: Etsuko Shiomi, Tamayo Mitsukawa, Michiyo Bandô, Hisako Tanaka, Hideo Murota, Kôji Fujiyama, Takashi Hio, Masashi Ishibashi
Return Of The Sister Street Fighter (1975)
Once again, this one picks up with Li Koryu back in Hong Kong. She is suddenly approached in the street by one of her family members named Sho (Jirô Yabuki - the real-life brother of Sonny Chiba), who has arrived from Japan. He begs her to come back home to help her cousin Shurei (Akane Kawasaki) who has fallen in with yet another Japanese gang. He also asks if she can take care of Shurei’s daughter Reika (Miwa Cho). At that moment, a gang attacks them, killing Sho in the process. With that, Koryu decides to sail across to the Land of the Rising Sun with Reika in tow and deal with those responsible.
As you might have guessed from the above synopsis, this is another entry in the series to rehash the same formula. Even a number of key sequences feel over-familiar if you’ve seen either of the previous films. Nonetheless, while it’s not quite as much fun as the first Sister Street Fighter, it’s still a tad better than the second.
If anything, it’s actually the best made of the three; one gets the impression that director Kazuhiko Yamaguchi was given a bit more time and money to work with this time around. The set design and cinematography are somewhat slicker, the action sequences are better assembled and, while the runtime is about eight minutes shorter, it feels like a modicum of extra effort was devoted to developing the characters. This helps to add some much-needed freshness to an idea that was already going stale by the second installment. The surrogate mother-daughter relationship between Koryu and Reika brings an emotional heart to the proceedings. There’s also an interesting twist near the end involving some history between two of the villainous characters.
On the other hand, gorehounds will probably walk away disappointed. Sure, there’s some bright red blood on display (along with a bit of nudity and some depictions of drug taking) but we don’t get to see any of the full-on arterial sprays, eye-gouging, disembowelment, head-twisting and arm-chopping which graced the first two films. Think of this one as a slightly gentler (albeit not exactly PG-rated) take on the Sister.
Runtime: 77 mins
Dir: Kazuhiko Yamaguchi
Script: Masahiro Kakefuda, Takeo Kaneko
Starring: Etsuko Shiomi, Akane Kawasaki, Miwa Cho, Mitchi Love, Jirô Yabuki, Rin'ichi Yamamoto
Sister Street Fighter: Fifth Level Fist (1976)
This sequel-in-name-only features Etsuko Shiomi playing a different character this time: Kiku, a young woman who, much to the concern of her parents, is more interested in training in martial arts than in getting married off to an eligible man. However, her skills prove useful when she discovers that Jim (Ken Wallace), the half-black older brother of her best friend Michi (Mitchi Love), has become involved in a drug-smuggling operation which is taking place under the cover of a movie studio.
Although this one’s plot doesn’t sound too dissimilar to that of the earlier three films (family members getting involved in the criminal underworld and Shiomi’s character coming to the rescue), it’s actually very different in style. In lieu of the near-constant, over-the-top comic-book mayhem and lurid exploitation of the three “proper” Sister Street Fighter entries, Fifth Level Fist offers a slower pace and more realistic feel. There are a lot of scenes involving police investigatory procedures and criminal wheeler-dealing, along with a bit of behind-the-scenes stuff within the movie business and a touching sepia-toned flashback. That’s not to say that the martial arts action is absent; it’s just that doesn’t occur as frequently as it does in the other films in this set. The result comes across more like a crime drama with intermittent fights thrown in.
It’s also surprising that Etsuko Shiomi’s involvement in the action is quite limited until the last 15 or so minutes, when we get a decent finale. The rest of Sister Street Fighter: Fifth Level Fist is… well, it isn’t bad by any means but, due to the dearth of the abundant craziness present in the earlier films coupled with the underuse of Shiomi, it feels rather ordinary. I suspect that, had the Sister Street Fighter name not been attached to it, then it would have inevitably languished forgotten in the mists of time. As it is, it’s of some interest mainly because it at least offers a genuine change of pace after three very similar efforts.
Runtime: 77 mins
Dir: Shigehiro Ozawa
Script: Isao Matsumoto, Motohiro Torii
Starring: Etsuko Shiomi, Mitchi Love, Ken Wallace, Masafumi Suzuki
Blu Ray Audio-Visual
The first film offers the best overall visual quality; the bright, day-glow colours will make you feel great to be alive. However, the other ones aren’t exactly shirkers either - just not quite as candy-store stunning. The lively 1970s soundtracks have also been brought wonderfully to life here. Again, the restoration for the first film is the best but the other three don’t slouch in this department either.
Sonny Chiba: A Life in Action, Vol. 3
This Arrow-exclusive interview features Chiba talking about his role in discovering actress Etsuko Shiomi. During this period, he ran a martial arts acting training school called the Japan Action Club and hand-picked Shiomi out of 10,000 applicants - despite the fact that his team of examiners initially failed her because she looked too masculine. Sadly, she retired from acting in the 1980s after getting married.
Kazuhiko Yamaguchi: Kick-Ass Sisters
The director of the first three films talks about them in this enjoyable ten-minute interview (another Arrow exclusive). While he was initially concerned about making martial arts flicks with a female lead, he was reassured when he saw her capabilities. He also admits that he particularly loved her smile.
Masahiro Kakefuda: Subversive Action
Yet another Arrow-exclusive feature. Kakefuda discusses working under Toei studios as well as with director Kazuhiko Yamaguchi and co-writer Norifumi Suzuki on the first three Sister Street Fighter films. By all accounts, he was incredibly busy (he regularly worked into the night and had one day off per month) but enjoyed the free rein that the studio gave him. He remembers wracking his brains day and night in his attempts to come up with inventive ideas for the bad guys in the three films.
The other extras here include a collector’s booklet, reversible sleeve art, isolated score highlights, trailers, a still and poster gallery, a cut US R-rated version of the first film and the opening titles for the German version.
This boxed set is a must for any Japanese cult cinema buff. While the sequels aren’t quite as fresh or special as the first one, it’s a fun collection nonetheless. It’s a bit light on extras but the ones which we do get aren’t bad by any stretch.
Sister Street Fighter
Sister Street Fighter: Hanging By A Thread
Return Of The Sister Street Fighter
Sister Street Fighter: Fifth Level Fist