Sister Street Fighter: Hanging by a Thread aka Onna hissatsu ken: kiki ippatsu (Blu-ray) [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - Arrow Films
Review written by and copyright: Paul Lewis (16th March 2019).
The Film

Sister Street Fighter Collection

(Yamaguchi Kazuhiko, 1974): In Hong Kong, martial arts champion Koryu (Shihomi Etsuko) is told by the police that her brother Mansei (Miyauchi Hiroshi), an undercover agent, disappeared whilst trying to infiltrate a Japanese drug smuggling group named Central Trading. Koryu is told that Central Trader is ‘protected by a group of brutal martial arts experts’. Mansei had a female oppo, Fang Shing. Koryu is asked to go to Japan, make contact with Fang Shing (Xie Xiu-Rong), and find out what happened to Mansei.

Koryu travels to Yokohama, where upon arrival she is harassed by a group of hoodlums but quickly demonstrates her martial arts prowess by dispatching them efficiently. She is aided by her cousin Jiro (Nanjo Tatsuya), who enters part-way through the fight. Afterwards, Koryu and Jiro are reunited with Jiro’s sister Reiko (Tachibana Nami) and their father, Koryu’s uncle. Koryu makes contact with Fang Shing, who is working as a hostess in a sleazy strip club. Koryu is attacked by a group of hoods working for Central Trading. She escapes, but the instigators within Central Trading – including heavily Americanised villain Hayashi (Yamamoto Shohei) and Inubashari (Ishibashi Masashi), who leads a squad of ninja assassins. Both men work for the head of Central Trading, Kakuzaki (Amatsu Bin), who lives in a luxurious mansion protected by various groups of martial artists, including the Amazon Seven.

Inubashari has a personal axe to grind with the honourful Shorinji martial arts school, who trained Koryu in Karate. The Shorinji school is headed by the kindly Fujita (Uchida Asao), and in line with Hayashi’s orders, Inubashari vows to destroy both Koryu and her former sensei.

At the Shorinji school, Koryu is introduced to Emi (Hayakawa Emi), a female martial artist, and Hibiki (Chiba Sonny), who has already been searching for Mansei. Hibiki has managed to rescue Fang Shing and has concealed her within his sister Koku’s ballet school. Koryu discovers tht Kakuzaki is keeping Mansei hostage and has been trying various heroin-based concoctions on him. Aided by Emi and Hibiki, Koryu vows to infiltrate Central Trading’s headquarters and dispatch Kakuzaki and his various goons.

Sister Street Fighter: Hanging By a Thread (Yamaguchi Kazuhiko, 1974): In this picture, Koryu acquires the nickname ‘Lady Dragon’, which sticks with her in the subsequent picture too. When Koryu witnesses the assassination of Kidai in Hong Kong, as his dying gesture Kidai gives Koryu his glass eye, which contains a microfilm, and asks her to deliver it to Professor Enmei. On the microfilm are photographs of a mansion where the professor’s daughter, Birei, is being held. Birei is a former schoolmate of Koryu’s. Koryu vows to help rescue Birei.

Koryu travels to Japan. Immediately, she is taken to a trainyard by a rogue taxi driver, where she is force to fight two martial artists. (One of these fights takes place atop a moving train.) Koryu discovers that Birei is being held by Osone Enterprises; Osone Enterprises is involved in the smuggling of blood diamonds. The diamonds are smuggled into the country in the buttocks of young women, and then they are removed by a medical doctor who works for the corporation.

Osone Enterprises is approached by a mysterious martial artist, Tsubaki, who demonstrates superior fighting skills before demanding that the corporation hire him to protect them from the Lady Dragon. This angers the three Honiden brothers – Shikajiro, Chazaburo and Inouchiri – who until this point have been the chief ‘muscle’ within the Osone Enterprises group.

Koryu has been aided by her sister Byakurai, who also works for Osone Enterprises as a gem cutter. Osone discovers Byakurai’s treachery and has her tortured, using her to lure the Lady Dragon to a potentially deadly confrontation with the Honiden brothers and the horde of martial artists who work under them. However, Koryu has an unexpected ally in Tsubaki, who reveals himself to be the brother of the murdered detective Kidai.

Return of Sister Street Fighter
(Yameguchi Kazuhiko, 1974): Koryu learns from her friend Sho that his cousin Shurei has vanished, leaving behind her young daughter Rika. Sho can’t investigate the disappearance himself because he’s a detective and ‘my face is too well-known’. He asks Koryu to go to Japan and speak with Shurei’s friend Suzy Wong, who works in a club in Yokohama. However, shortly afterwards Sho is attacked by a gang; he is stabbed and killed in front of his young niece. As he dies, Sho asks Koryu to take care of Rika until she can find Shurei.

In Yokohama, Koryu is reunited with her friend Michi, who is also a martial artist. Koryu tracks down Suzy Wong, who is working in a seedy club called Empire. Wong tells Koryu that Shurei has been taken by Oh Ryu-Mei, ‘the shadow ruler of Yokohama’s Chinatown’, as his mistress. Oh is also using Shurei’s skills as a chemist to reconstitute the dissolved gold that his group have been smuggling into Japan.

Oh uses gladiatorial combat to select four men who will be tasked with killing the Lady Dragon. However, shortly after the fights, another martial artist, Kurosaki Takeshi, enters and beats Oh’s four best men, insisting that ‘I’m the only one that can kill Koryu’. Eventually, Kurosaki succeeds in facing Koryu, and he appears to kill her. However, Koryu has really escaped, and she returns to Michi’s home where she recuperates. When Oh discovers Koryu is still alive, he uses Rika to lure Koryu into a final battle.

Sister Street Fighter: Fifth Level Fist (Ozawa Shigehiro, 1976): Kiku (Etsuko Shihomi) is resistant to her parents’ attempts to find her a husband. She is an accomplished martial artist with the Seibukan Dojo. Kiku’s friends are Michi and Jim. Michi is half-Caucasian and Bill’s father was African-American, and as children they both faced prejudice owing to their mixed heritage, which led to them forming a strong bond.

Meanwhile, at the Far East Film Production Studio, studio boss Fujiyama oversees a gang who smuggle heroin into the country on fishing boats on the Echizen Coast before packing the drug into Buddhist statues which are shipped to the US. Fujiyama is visited by Spencer, an American member of an international narcotics syndicate who is masquerading as a Hollywood producer visiting the set of Far East’s latest movie. Spencer warns Fujiyama that an American agent is on the way to Japan with the intention of closing down the drug routes.

Michi is asked to act as translator for Douglas, a visiting American professor. However, Michi is unaware that Douglas is in fact the American agent whose arrival in Japan Spencer warned Fujiyama about. Michi’s association with Douglas places her in mortal danger, as Fujiyama has placed a price on the head of the American agent. Michi and Jim become embroiled in the ensuing war between the hoodlums and the police. When Jim is killed, Michi seeks vengeance upon the gangsters, and it is up to Kiku, and her friend Inspector Takagi, to attempt to save her.

Critique: A spin-off from the Sonny Chiba-starring The Street Fighter (Ozawa Shigehiro, 1974), which itself had two sequels (Return of the Street Fighter and The Street Fighter’s Last Revenge, both also released in 1974), Sister Street Fighter and its three sequels replaced Chiba with a female lead, Shihomi Etsuko. Like Chiba, Shihomi was an accomplished martial artist, specialising in Karate. Where The Street Fighter was sometimes cited as capitalising on the popularity of Bruce Lee’s films, and in particular Enter the Dragon (Robert Clouse, 1973), the Sister Street Fighter films wear the influence of the Lee picture on their sleeves: the first film contains a flashback sequence in which Koryu’s brother Mansei sneaks into the villain’s underground lair and is confronted by a gang of martial artists, including a nunchaku-wielding henchmen. This sequence seems to pay direct homage to a similar pivotal sequence in Enter the Dragon. Similar moments crop up in the sequels, and all of the films feature characters that adopt/mimic Lee’s idiosyncratic vocalisation during fights. The third film in the series, Return of Sister Street Fighter also prominently features a Bruce Lee poster in a key scene and also features a villain with a deadly prosthetic hand which is strikingly like that of Han in Enter the Dragon.

Where Chiba’s Street Fighter mitigated Lee’s graceful movements through an emphasis on brute force within the martial arts technique of its star, Chiba, in the Sister Street Fighter pictures Shihomi marries the grace of Lee with the bluntness of Chiba. The Sister Street Fighter films also looked sideways for inspiration to the Hong Kong action films which starred Taiwanese actress Angela Mao – such as Huang Feng’s Hapkido (1972) and Lady Whirlwind (also 1972).

There’s a clear sense in which these films followed on from some of the paradigms of Nikkatsu’s Borderless Action pictures of the 1960s, which conveyed the impact of American culture on Japanese society through Americanised settings (nightclubs, American-style diners, etc). Where films prior to the Borderless Action pictures of the 1960s had featured Americanised villains, in the Borderless Action pictures the heroes were often Americanised. The Sister Street Fighter films, along with other action pictures of the 1970s, once again returned to the depiction of villains with Americanised characteristics. In Sister Street Fighter, the villains associated with the criminal organisation against which Koryu finds herself pitted – Central Trading – are heavily Americanised to the extend that they wear fedoras and look/behave like extras from The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972): Hayashi, one of the chief villains in the picture, wears a white suit and black fedora. When Koryu journeys to Yokohama, she begins her investigation in a sleazy strip club which is dominated by jazz music and even has American patrons. Likewise, in Sister Street Fighter: Hanging by a Thread, the underboss of Osone Enterprises, Mr Kuroki (XXXX), wears a trilby, raincoat and sunglasses.

Though the fourth picture, Sister Streetfighter: Fifth Level Fist, features a different protagonist (though played once again by Shihomi), all four films begin in Hong Kong and feature characters who are of mixed Chinese-Japanese heritage. The plot of the fourth film, Sister Street Fighter: Fifth Level Fist, revolves around Michi, the friend of the protagonist (Kiku), and her friendship with Jim. Both Michi and Jim are of mixed heritage: Michi is Chinese-Japanese, and Jim’s mother was black. Because they were treated as outsiders by their peers, Michi and Jim formed a strong friendship in childhood, which is depicted through high contrast monochrome flashbacks that show the harsh treatment Michi and Jim were forced to endure solely because of their mixed heritage. Koryu, as with her brother Mansei, is of mixed Japanese and Chinese heritage. In the first three pictures, the Lady Dragon herself is ordered to Japan in order to assist in finding a missing person. In the first picture, this is Koryu’s brother Mansei, who has disappeared whilst working undercover for the Hong Kong police; in Sister Street Fighter: Hanging by a Thread, the missing person is Koryu’s schoolmate Birei, who has been abducted by the agents of Osone Enterprise, who are smuggling blood diamonds into Japan in the buttocks of young women(!); in Return of Sister Street Fighter, Koryu must uncover the whereabouts of another of her friends, Shurei, who in disappearing has left behind her young daughter Rika. Shurei is being held by gangster Oh Ryu-Mei, who treats Shurei as his moll and also exploits her knowledge of chemistry in smuggling gold. (The gold is smuggled in a powdered form and then reconstituted on Japanese soil.

The first two films, in particular, punctuate their narratives with regular fights between Koryu and combatants who specialise in various martial arts. These fights are prefaced by freeze-frames of Koryu’s opponent which feature on-screen text declaring the opponent’s name and identifying the martial art/weapon in which they specialise (eg, Korean Kung-Fu, Chinese Kung-Fu, the tonfa, the sai). Such an introduction might suggest to the viewer that the enemy combatant is a match for Koryu’s peerless technique (and her mastery of various martial arts and weapons, which she often picks up from the battlefield and demonstrates a skill in using that is equal to her opponents’). However, in most instances these opponents are dispatched very quickly: the point is made very brutally that they are not worthy opponents for Koryu, and in fact very few people are, but the net result for the audience is perhaps a sense of dramatic frustration – a continuous suggestion of a climactic battle that never really happens. This technique becomes wearying over time, though it’s certainly within the paradigms of contemporaneous Japanese action pictures – and subsequent examples of the form (and more recent video games too, such as Sega’s Yakuza series). In the first two films, in particular, the stream of martial artists employed by the villains seems almost endless. In fact, in Sister Street Fighter the head of Central Trading, Kakuzaki, notes that the martial artists he ‘collects’ ‘are like my pets. Some rich men buy race horses or keep expensive dogs as pets. But I keep unusual humans instead of animals. It amuses me’.

The opening titles of the first three films play over kaleidoscopic images of Koryu performing various kata in front of a vibrantly coloured backdrop. Though the pictures feature Koryu (and in the fourth film, Kiku) as a supreme kicker of ass, the depiction of Koryu (and, in the final film, Kiku) as a strong female lead is mitigated somewhat by the other female characters, who are largely there to be ogled (as strippers), objectified, captured, tortured and, in some instances, sexually assaulted. (In one particularly unpleasant sequence in Sister Street Fighter, Kakuzaki has Reiko raped in front of her father, in order to persuade Koryu’s uncle to set a trap for the Lady Dragon.) in the second film, Sister Street Fighter: Hanging by a Thread, Koryu’s sister Byakurai is tortured ingeniously by Osone, who makes Byakurai stand on blocks of ice whilst her calves are burnt. ‘You kill innocent people like they’re insects’, Byakurai informs him, ‘It’s inhuman!’ Osone delivers the coup-de-grace by using his signature weapon, two stiletto blades, to blind Byakurai. Whether the films are ‘progressive’ or not in terms of their focus on a female action heroine – which, to be fair, was light years ahead of Hollywood’s examination of the same concept in films made 20 years later (such as Ridley Scott’s Thelma and Louise and Renny Harlin’s The Long Kiss Goodnight) – is a matter of opinion. Sister Street Fighter: Fifth Level Fist confronts directly the expectations that are placed upon young women, Takagi commenting to Kiku that ‘Cooking good food for your husband and raising your children well; aren’t these things that make a woman happy? Kiku, women are women, after all’.

The format changes slightly with the third picture, Return of Sister Street Fighter, which aside from dispensing with the freeze frames features a more compacted narrative. (A cynic might say that the film is ten minutes shorter precisely because it abandons the seemingly omnipresent freeze frames and onscreen titles that punctuate the first two pictures in the series.) In the first two films, Koryu is also allied with the honourful Shorinji school of martial arts, which is set against the villains’ abuse of the code of the martial artist – in particular, the cruel and honourless Honiden brothers in Sister Street Fighter: Hanging by a Thread. (‘What the fuck are you preaching here with your two-bit Hong Kong Karate?’, Inouchiri Honiden taunts Fujita, the sensei of the Shorinji school.)

Video

All of the films are presented in 1080p using the AVC codec. All four pictures were shot anamorphically, on 35mm colour stock, and are presented in their intended aspect ratio of 2.35:1.

Taking up just under 22Gb of space on the first disc, Sister Street Fighter is presented uncut, with a running time of 85:53 mins. (The film was previously released in the UK via the US ‘R’ rated version, which was already cut before its US release and suffered further cuts imposed by the BBFC; all of these cuts have been waived for this release.)

Disc one also includes the US ‘R’ rated and English-dubbed version of Sister Street Fighter. Running 81:13, this variant is assembled from a variety of sources, with the bulk of the presentation being based on the HD master used for the main feature and material unique to this cut of the film being inserted from a lower quality source.

On the second disc, Sister Street Fighter: Hanging by a Thread takes up 14Gb with a running time of 85:24 mins, and Return of Sister Street Fighter and Sister Street Fighter: Fifth Level Fist fill a little under 13Gb each (with running times of 76:56 and 76:49, respectively).

Return of Sister Street Fighter and Sister Street Fighter: Fifth Level Fist are both uncut. Sister Street Fighter: Hanging by a Thread has been censored slightly for this release, a shot being reframed in order to avoid the inclusion of a potentially indecent image of a child via a framed photograph in the background.

The presentations of all four films are pretty equivalent. The photography in all four films favours shorter focal lengths. As with a number of other Japanese pictures of the era which were shot under similar circumstances, lenses used during production aren’t the best: in the first film, in particular, there is some noticeable aberration towards the periphery of the image. Aside from this, there is some very minor damage here and there, with a few vertical scratches appearing in the emulsions from time to time.

Taking the apparent quality of the lenses used to shoot the films into account, detail is pleasing throughout all four presentations, with a good level of fine detail being present. Contrast levels are pleasing though the curve into the toe seems sharp. Midtones are rich and defined throughout all four films. Colour is handled pleasingly, with a rich and consistently natural approach evident in the photography and carried through the presentation. Finally, all four films benefit from a pleasing encode to disc, retaining the structure of 35mm film.

Sister Street Fighter


Sister Street Fighter: Hanging by a Thread


Return of the Sister Street Fighter


Sister Street Fighter: Fifth Level Fist



Some full-sized screengrabs are included at the bottom of this review. Please click to enlarge them.

Audio

All four films are presented with LPCM 1.0 soundtracks, in Japanese with optional English subtitles. (Sister Street Fighter also has the alternate English language dub, in LPCM 1.0 also, Sister Street Fighter: Fifth Level Fist has some brief moments of English language dialogue which are accompanied by burnt-in Japanese subtitles. Audio levels are fine throughout all four films; though not ‘showy’ by any stretch of the imagination, the audio tracks show good range and depth.

Extras

Disc contents are as follows -

DISC ONE:
Sister Street Fighter
(85:53)

- ‘R’ rated version (81:13).

- ‘Sonny Chiba: A Life in Action’ (10:10). Recorded in 2016, this interview features Chiba reflecting on his work with Shihomi Etsuko, discussing her talents as an actress and martial artist.

- ‘Kazuhiko Yamaguchi: Kick-Ass Sisters’ (10:06). Also recorded in 2016, this interview with director Yamaguchi focuses on his work on the Sister Street Fighter Films. Yamaguchi talks about how he came to work on the first film and reflects on his career to that point. He discusses his work with the actors on the films, talking in some detail about the approach that was made towards staging the fights and choosing weapons for the characters.

- ‘Masahiro Kakefuda: Subversive Action’ (10:51)
. In another interview dating from 2016, writer Kakefuda discusses his work for Toei and considers his preference for writing erotic films. He reflects on some of the influences on the Sister Street Fighter films.

- Isolated Score Highlights (11:43)
.

- Trailer (2:47)
.

- Still & Poster Gallery (22:41)
.

- US Trailer (2:35)
.

- German Opening Titles (2:11)
.

- German Trailer (2:35)
.


DISC TWO:
Sister Street Fighter: Hanging by a Thread
(85:24)
Return of the Sister Street Fighter (76:56)
Sister Street Fighter: Fifth Level Fist (76:49)

- Isolated Score Highlights: Sister Street Fighter: Hanging by a Thread (19:26); Return of the Sister Street Fighter (10:15)

- Trailers: Sister Street Fighter: Hanging by a Thread (2:44); Return of the Sister Street Fighter (2:57); Sister Street Fighter: Fifth Level Fist (2:57).

Overall

Moments of outrageous violence and martial arts action pepper the narratives of these four films. The first film in the series is arguably the equal of Chiba’s original Street Fighter and perhaps even more memorable for the manner in which it features a female martial artist. The two direct sequels to Sister Street Fighter are a prime case of the law of diminishing returns, their plotting feeling particularly cookie cutter-ish by the time one watches the third picture. (This is something which is more noticeable if one watches the films in quick succession.) The fourth picture, which features Shihomi Etsuko in a different role and was helmed by a director other than Yamaguchi, is a slightly different kettle of fish, taking its story in slightly different directions. The fourth film benefits from its self-aware nature (with its scenes on the set of the jidai-geki being produced by Fujiyama’s film production company) and its examination of the manner in which Michi and Jim have been excluded from society because of their mixed heritage. Certainly, these are entertaining films which offer plenty of entertainment value for fans of martial arts cinema.

Arrow’s Blu-ray presentations of all four films are pleasing and would seem to be true to source, offering a filmlike experience. They are supported by an excellent array of contextual material, including the US ‘R’ rated version of the first picture and some superb interviews with Chiba, Yamaguchi and Kakefuda.


Please click to enlarge

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