Director: Teruo Ishii
Starring: Sonny Chiba, Makato Sato, Ejii Go, Yasuaki Kurata
Since Shinichi "Sonny" Chiba recently celebrated his birthday (at the ripe young age of 72) I thought that for my first ever blog entry, I would review my all time favorite of his films; the 1974 karate exploitation comedy "Jigoku Ken" literally translated as "Hell Fist" but known here to us Yanks as "The Executioner".
The film was Chiba's followup to his legendary "The Streetfighter" (aka Sudden Attack: The Killing Fist) and for this project, he was teamed with noted exploitation director, Teruo Ishii. The teaming would seem to be a match made in jigoku as Ishii strongly disliked martial arts movies, laughing them off as being silly and unbelievable. In truth, Ishii was much more comfortable directing erotic-grotesque features such as "Horrors of Malformed Men" and "Shogun's Joys of Torture" and wanted nothing to do with this project. Unfortunately for him, he was under contract with Toei and couldn't refuse. The result; what was initially to be a straight ahead modern karate/ninja film was elevated to an action/exploitation masterpiece. Ishii (in an attempt to show his displeasure with the material that was forced upon him) loaded the film with wild, over the top fight sequences, nudity, gore and a genuine air of anarchy previously unseen in a Japanese martial arts film. To Ishii's horror, the local audiences ate it up, making this both Ishii's and Chiba's biggest financial hit up to this point.
The story (as it were) concerns the police hiring three local tough guys; a ninja (Chiba) a hired hitman (Makato Sato) and a jailed sex addict (Eiji Go) to stop a Tokyo drug dealer and his gang. Unfortunately, the three antiheroes do not get along and freely focus their bad behavior on each other with Go's character getting the worst of it. The three of them are kept in line by the police commissioner's pretty and sexy daughter (who takes a liking to Go, much to Chiba's chagrin). The bad guys have hired some particularly nasty and loathsome European fighters, one of whom is a cannibal. During the final seige on the gang's headquarters, our threesome are joined by an overzealous karate student, played by Yasuaki Kurata (who has made a living playing Japanese villains in countless Hong Kong kung fu features). Kurata's appearance in the final half hour seems to come out of left field, as if the filmmakers decided at the eleventh hour that another fighter was needed for the filnale. Sadly, Kurata and Chiba never get to fight side by side. This is perhaps the only disappointment in what is otherwise a supremely enjoyable exploitationer, one of the best ever made anywhere.
So successful was this movie that Toei immediately commissioned the beleaguered Ishii to do a sequel, the even more irreverent "Executioner 2". More on that one later...
**** / ****