DVD Review: The Masutatsu Oyama Trilogy
by Max Braden
Published: June 27, 2007
Though Bruce Lee may have been the household name of martial arts movies in the 1970s, he wasn't the only player around. While Lee represented Hong Kong, Sonny Chiba was the most famous star of Japanese martial arts films at that time. Chiba had earned his stardom with his "Street Fighter" series of movies starting in 1974.
Like Lee, Chiba had first been trained in martial arts before becoming an actor. Chiba's mentor was Masutatsu Oyama, born in Korea as Choi Yeong-eui after World War I, who moved to Japan and founded the Kyokushin Karate school after World War II. Oyama's style was tough and intense, focused on power and practical use over art. He reportedly demonstrated his power by severing the horns from live bulls with his bare hands.
In 1975, Sonny Chiba starred in the first of three movies that dramatized Oyama's life in Japan. Chiba was well suited to play the part. Not only could he perform the moves convincingly, but his intense eyes gave off the kind of intimidation one would expect from someone with Oyama's personality. Chiba plays Oyama as both conflicted and explosive, driven to prove himself as the toughest fighter around even when endeavor keeps getting him into trouble.
The Oyama films feature plenty of action but are not the nonstop actioners of tournament-based stories. They are sometimes meandering dramas without a consistent plot. Interestingly, the character of Oyama is an unusually conflicted one, as much villain as hero, unlike typical martial arts characters motivated strongly by honor. He picks fights, and then finds himself undoing the damage he's caused. The fight choreography is fast with plenty of flying kicks, but most opponents are dispatched by a single punch amid heavy hissing and 'whoosh'ing. Some of the best cinematography of the series shows multiple enemies simultaneously emerging from tall grass to surround and fight Oyama in a field. The fights may not top lists of the best martial arts scenes in cinema, but the movies do present Chiba in his wild-eyed prime, and a different type of character than the noble Shaolin fare.
This release brings together each movie on its own DVD. Each movie is the original cut in Japanese language only, with available English subtitles. Just the movies - there are no disc extras or other printed material. The movies are not rated by the MPAA but have some brief language and bloody martial-arts violence. The set retails for a street price of $29.98.
"KARATE BULL FIGHTER" - 1975 - 1 hr. 28 min.
("Kenka Karate Kyokushin Ken" aka "Champion of Death")
We are first introduced to Oyama in 1949 Kyoto, Japan. He appears at Japan's first post war martial arts championship with bushy mop of hair and wearing tattered clothes. All that is known about him is that he's been training alone in the mountains for the past three years, but he soundly defeats Japan's best fighters. Oyama is unimpressed by the victory, however, calling modern karate "a dance" that pulls its punches. Taking up a job as a rickshaw driver, he intervenes when it seems an American G.I. is manhandling a woman he mistakes for a prostitute, named Chiyako (Yumi Takigawa). Their love is fleeting though as Oyama focuses on karate. After killing a wild bull with his bare hands (after much running backwards), he reluctantly takes on a student who takes his harsh training and tough attitude too far. When violence boils over, Oyama questions his own beliefs about karate and retreats to a quiet life in the country. But he is ultimately drawn back to face Japan's official karate commission by its chairman Nakasone (Mikio Narita) and his top fighter Nanba (Masashi Ishibashi, who also starred in the "Street Fighter" series.) Much of the fighting in this first movie is hidden by closeup camera angles.
"KARATE BEAR FIGHTER" - 1975 - 1 hr. 28 min.
("Kenka Karate Kyokushin Buraiken")
Now in 1951, Oyama is shown repeatedly challenging others (and subsequently challenged by others) to prove his superiority and dismiss the weakened form of modern karate. Dismissed by the karate establishment as giving the sport a bad name, and heavily drinking, he takes a job as a bouncer (decked out in Elvis-like aviator sunglasses and white suit and coat hanging off the shoulders) for a gangster. Chiyako reappears in a nightclub, but again their romance is only temporary. Again after exacting vengeance for a beaten friend, Oyama heads to seclude himself in Hokkaido, where he befriends a child thief. The kid steals to help his sick father, so Oyama agrees to fight a bear for money to cover the father's hospital bills. The real Masu Oyama appears in the opening credits, demonstrating his moves. The fights are faster and harder in this second film, with better camera work, though the bear is so obviously fake that it looks like a rodent of unusual size.
"KARATE FOR LIFE" - 1977 - 1 hr. 30 min.
Set a year after "Karate Bear Fighter," Oyama is still picking fights, still drunk, and still working for the mob. He's approached by a fight promoter named Yamashita to fight Americans in a gym in Okinawa. The fights, however, are staged and ridiculously mismatched as in the case of the real life fight between boxer Muhammad Ali and Japanese wrestler Antonio Inoki in 1976. Oyama is told that the fights are fixed, but even when he breaks his promise to lose he still seems to have more trouble with a 275-buffoon than the bear in the previous movie. He once again withdraws from fighting but in crossing paths with a down and out prostitute, goes back to fighting for money in order to help her. In the opening of "Karate For Life" he takes on 100 dojo fighters in a brawl that ends covered in oil (possibly the inspiration for "The Transporter"). A final duel in a multi-mirrored room looks like it was lifted right out of "Enter the Dragon."
Chiba later went on to star in the TV series Shadow Warriors and later in Quentin Tarantino's "Kill Bill: Vol. 1."
Also on DVD this week: "Behind the Mask" | "Black Snake Moan" | "Dead Silence" | "Pride" | "Shooter" | The New Adventures of Superman
Max's 2006 Ratings
Max's 2007 Ratings