Next up for all you martial arts film lovers out there thanks to Hai! Karate is a Shinichi 'Sonny' Chiba joint that doesn't get quite the accolades it deserves, Shorinji Kenpo, from 1976!
Shorinji Kenpois essentially a biography of the art's founder, Doshin So. So is, like other founding masters of martial arts, a figure stepped in legend and legacy. So was born in Okayama, Japan in 1911 and at the age of 17 he went to live in China. Why? He was working for the government as a secret agent. While there, So fit in well enough to be involved with several Chinese secret societies. This would then put him in contact with martial artists who had been in hiding since the Boxer Rebellion years earlier. He began to learn from them, specifically training with a Shaolin master by the name of Wen Laoshi. He would succeed Laoshi as master of the Northern Shaolin Giwamonken School. Using this style and other techniques, he gave birth to shorinji kempo, which translated means 'Shaolin Temple Fist Method'. He returned to Japan in 1946 and saw that the country was in ruin and moral disrepair after their defeat in World War II. He then committed himself to helping to boost morale and pride by reaching out to the youth in talks, then by establishing a dojo via the formation of a temple, getting around the Allied forces' decree that no martial arts be taught in post-war times.
With a story like that, it's no wonder Toei wanted to do a film on So. And they had the man to do it, Sonny Chiba. Chiba was riding high as Japan's #1 action star. The film essentially has him playing Soh during this period as he returned to Japan to find his way. The film begins with Soh escaping a gang of Chinese fighters only to get to base and find that Japan has surrendered to the U.S. He reacts by shooting up the entire office in rage.
So returns to Japan, and along the way dispenses justice against some soldiers looking to rape a young girl named Kiku(Yutaku Nakajima)and to stop Korean bandits on a train in rough fashion. So's whole persona is that of dispensing justice and living with honor even in the worst of times. He eventually finds a home in the slums of Osaka amid orphans and prostitutes underneath a railway. There he's charitable and helps to settle disputes, one of which has him reunite with Kiku and her brother. Kiku had become a prostitute, forced by the Russians. But with So and the the orphans, she runs a food stand. The happiness doesn't last long as her brother gets hit by an American jeep and So proceeds to bust heads.
While in prison, he befriends a man named Otaki(Makoto Sato) who he had beaten up before in a melee with black market smugglers. Of course, this is after he sends Otaki RIGHT THROUGH THE WALL with one kick. So winds up getting freed by the prison warden on the condition he leave Osaka. He does and hits a seaside town, Tadotsu. There he solidifies his rep as 'Crazy Dog', but also gains enough support to build up his dojo while waging war on the local yakuza. It all comes to a head once one of his prize students, Tomoda(Naoya Makato) and his sister (Etsuko Shiomi) are set upon by yakuza thugs who slice off Tomoda's arm. The battle is now on in earnest as So begins to define not only his purpose, but that of Shorinji Kempo.
Shorinji Kenpo is a surprisingly compelling film. It is a shame that Western markets chose to dub it 'The Killing Machine' because it gets away from the heart shown in the picture. For starters, it's a sobering look at Japan's disrepair after World War II in all forms. It's not hokey in the least. The storyline may have its highly cinematic parts but it also has tear-jerker moments. Otaki's storyline is painful in the picture. Kiku is also a tragic figure. But there is triumph of the will here, evidenced by So and Tomoda, who despite losing an arm, finds the courage to still fight and train. Shorinji Kenpo benefits from this, as well as its many well-done and thrilling fight scenes. So himself was the primary film fight instructor, thus keeping the integrity in the action. And there is a lot of it. Be warned though - there is visible blood-letting in the flick, including one scene that... well for the fellas, I'd advise you to really cringe in one scene where So dispenses justice in a crude way. That ends with a stray dog. Yeah. Shorinji Kenpo is probably one of Chiba's best flicks in that it is one of his most balanced. And Chiba's acting doesn't go over the top here, befitting the man who he portrays. Go peep Shorinji Kenpo as soon as possible.
RATING: 4.5 of 5 DRAGON PUNCHES