Economic Measures #6 | Sonny Chiba in The Street Fighter (1974)

Economic Measures is a regular column celebrating those facial and bodily gestures in film that say a lot with a little.

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By Michael Pattison

In the run-up to the climactic duel of The Street Fighter (1974), the film’s protagonist Tsiguri (Sonny Chiba) boards an oil tanker, on which its owner, oil heiress Sarai (Yutaka Nakajima), is being held hostage by the mafia cohorts who want to steal her fortune. Awaiting Tsiguri are gun-toting thugs, casual hired hands and two siblings who had earlier refused to pay our protagonist after the latter had completed a dangerous job for them. This finale is a masterpiece of meaningful action, in which multiple story threads meet in one final showdown. Driving it, as he has done the film, is Chiba, a pulsating, intense figure whose anger seeps through at every turn.

A major part of what makes The Street Fighter a more sophisticated film than its contemporaries is its high production values. Shot on location in Hong Kong and Japan by cinematographer Kenji Tsukagoshi, it boasts a dazzling display of colours and compositional vivacity – in the ultra-widescreen 2.35:1 format – that its otherwise ordinary plot would customarily preclude.

Another key contributor to The Street Fighter‘s success is of course Chiba himself. In contrast to Bruce Lee, the man is vicious from the outset, and though he is revealed to have a code, it is largely governed by financial need. Lee’s appeal lay in the arrogance with which he began a conversation knowing he had his fists of fury to fall back on when the other guy inevitably turned nasty. For Chiba’s character, fighting is the only viable means of communication.

Tsiguri’s father, we learn via flashback, was killed for being a spy, and the resulting legacy is one of distrust, resentment and a self-made tough-guy status: nothing upsets Tsiguri more than an unfulfilled promise, which is why he bears the burden physically as well as emotionally when he makes one to someone else. Indeed, physical force is an emotional outlet in itself for Chiba. To watch him in just about any scene in The Street Fighter is to witness someone channelling a deep, conflicted spiritualism into a lethal weapon. If the reason we continue to like Bruce Lee is his speedy chic – aided by the mysticism that follows a premature death (he’s a kind of Bob Marley of martial arts) – then Chiba’s charms are rooted in a thuggish morality, whereby the pursuit of monetary sustenance fuels his capacity to fight, and thus survive. Never underestimate a guy whose reason to fight is economic.

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These qualities are encapsulated in the scene aboard the oil tanker at the end of the film, as Tsiguri makes his way from the deck to the deeper corridors and engine room below, downing any man (or woman) who dares to stop him. Tsiguri’s ferocity alone seems to compel him onward, like a motor whose sound drowns out all other human attributes. To think of an equivalent performance recently – in which the gruelling element of a fistfight becomes a kind of the structuring principle – we might look to Jean-Claude Van Damme’s exhilarating one-man attack on the compound in John Hyams’ Universal Soldier: Regeneration (2009). Matching the kind of formal audacity that has included an x-ray image of a skull being smashed earlier in the film, Chiba here personifies someone who really is going to go all the way. While knuckles and feet are his preferred weapons of choice, he doesn’t think twice about throwing a knife into the arm of a woman who points a gun at him, and he is unforgiving enough to throw a man to his death even after he has incapacitated him.

Beginning this 4½-minute sequence of fights by stealthily offing a guard and carrying him overboard, Chiba becomes increasingly maniacal in look and angular in movement. Indeed, so heavy is the body count to come, and so confined are the spaces in which he must run this gauntlet, that somewhere along the way, Chiba’s more balletic manoeuvres become less elegant. And that deep, cacophonous hiss-cum-growl that he summons in his throat between each attack becomes harsher, more audible. In a word, more alien: here, fisticuffs are a thing of consequence, something by and through which man is both spiritually and physically transformed. Resembling a possessed demon by the time he plunges his fatal fist into a female foe (tactfully obscured by an upturned settee), Chiba’s quest to save Sarai has changed him: even if he does down everyone in his path, we get the sense from his eyes that he’ll never quite recover from it, and that a relationship with Sarai would be out of the question.

Irredeemably intense, this odds-against, self-destructive plummet into violence prefigures that other antiheroic climax of the 1970s – that of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. Likewise, when his fight is over, Chiba’s fate is open to ambiguity.

Contributor Michael Pattison can be followed on Twitter @m_pattison and runs the blog idFilm.net.

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