The Executioner Collection Blu-ray Review
Blu-ray Release: January 10, 2023
Audio: Japanese and English LPCM Mono
Subtitles: English, English SDH
Run Time: 86:38 (The Executioner), 85:51 (The Executioner II: Karate Inferno)
Director: Teruo Ishii
Teruo Ishii belongs in a special pantheon of innovative, truly unique cult filmmakers that have been forgotten or overlooked by the mainstream. His prolific output of nearly 100 features, shorts, and television episodes was spotty – ranging from children’s sci-fi serial Super Giant (Japanese: Sūpā Jaiantsu; released internationally as Starman and Spaceman, 1957-1959) to pinku eiga (aka: pinky violence) crime pictures and shockingly violent, trendsetting work on ero guro (aka: erotic-grotesque) opuses Shogun’s Joys of Torture (Japanese: Tokugawa onna keibatsu-shi, 1968) and its sequels. Shogun’s Joy of Torture was almost certainly his most influential work, but his best films were his vivid, freakshow genre mash-ups Blind Woman’s Curse (Japanese: Kaidan Nobori Ryū, 1970) and 1969’s Horrors of Malformed Men (Japanese: Edogawa Rampo Zenshū: Kyoufu Kikei Ningen).
Meanwhile, an actor named Shinichi Chiba, nicknamed Sonny, had been rising in prominence and developed a persona as Japan’s ultimate badass. After years of bottom bill sci-fi and crime drama programmers, he had finally broken through into international stardom with the release of Shigehiro Ozawa’s 1974 hit, Clash! Killer Fist (Japanese: Gekitotsu! Satsujin ken), which would be released outside Japan as The Street Fighter. The same year, Ozawa and Chiba released Return of the Street Fighter (Japanese: Satsujin ken 2) and The Street Fighter's Last Revenge (Japanese: also Gyakushû! Satsujin ken for some reason?), completing a trilogy of karate films that could compete with and even surpass China’s kung fu exports, at least in terms of pure, crowd-pleasing ultra-violence (the first one was initially released with an X rating in the US).
In a downright mercenary attempt to squeeze every penny from The Street Fighter’s box office potential, the Toei Company also released the series’ first spin-off, Kazuhiko Yamaguchi’s Sister Street Fighter (Japanese: Onna Hissatsu Ken), which featured Chiba in a supporting role, and paired the star with Ishii to make a couple of otherwise unrelated karate criminal thrillers, The Executioner (Japanese: Chokugeki! Jigokuken) and The Executioner II: Karate Inferno. All six films were released between February and December of 1974, leading to years of calculated confusion as to how many canon Street Fighter movies actually existed.
Ryuichi Koga (Sonny Chiba) is a descendent of the Koga Ninja school, now earning his living through more nefarious means as a gun for hire. When he is enlisted to take down a drug cartel alongside Hayabusa (Makoto Sato), a disgraced former narcotics detective now operating within the criminal underworld, and renegade Aikido master Sakura (Eiji Gō), tensions grow among this three-man team of ne'er do wells as each come to question each other’s motives. (From Arrow’s official synopsis)
The first film – not to be confused with Sam Wanamaker’s The Executioner (1970), Cyril Frankel’s The Executioner (1975), James Bryan’s The Executioner, Part II (1984), Lin Chan-Wei’s Kung Fu Executioner (1980), or even Duke Mitchell’s Massacre Mafia Style (1974), because it was released as The Executioner in a number of countries – is a quintessential, contemporary-set Sonny Chiba movie. Its story is straightforward, it functions on comic book logic, its characters are set at emotional ones or tens with zero in-betweens, its violence is exaggerated, and its hero is macho to the nth degree. While not quite as brutal as the Street Fighter movies (Chiba does still tear out a man’s rib barehanded) and tempered by Ishii’s delightfully juvenile sense of humor and a slight espionage angle, The Executioner ups the ultra masculine energy by teaming Chiba with two additional badasses, a hardnose boss, and an equally capable female partner (Yutaka Nakajima, who also appeared in The Street Fighter), making it a sort of smaller scale version of Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen (1967).
There’s a rich Japanese tradition of men on a mission movies dating back to the earliest adaptations of the story of the Forty-Seven Ronin, but The Executioner takes a decidedly Western approach to the gathering of its tough guy brigade, referencing both The Dirty Dozen and Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (Italian: Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo, 1966). After the set-up, Ishii’s script takes a welcome turn into raunchy Mission Impossible territory, though one that simplifies plot and suspense in favor of action and jokes. Ishii isn’t as gifted as a pure action director as Ozawa, but his taste for the comically grotesque helps him overcome his limitations and doubles as a lighthearted mockery of Chiba and his Japanese Bruce Lee persona (Chiba poses, hoots, and hollers in a very mock Bruce Lee fashion throughout his karate movies). Examples of very Ishii-like gags include a man whose eyes cartoonishly bug out of his skull after being punched in the back of the head, multiple fights where Chiba is distracted by nude women, a villain who is introduced biting off a sparing partner’s ear, the villains playing a cruel game where they measure who can punch Chiba the furthest, and a character whose last words are “Senpai…please take care of my…car payments.”
The Executioner II: Karate Inferno
The bumbling mercenaries Koga (Sonny Chiba), Sakura (Eiji Gô), and Hayabusa (Makoto Satō) return and are tasked with rescuing a wealthy heiress’ young daughter and retrieving her priceless jewelry. Things do not go as planned.
Toei wanted another Sonny Chiba movie to cram into their 1974 schedule and requested that Ishii make another Executioner movie. The director wasn’t particularly interested, so, when Toei pressed the issue, he opted to turn the sequel into a comedy and borderline spoof of the first film (which was already a borderline spoof) in order to amuse himself. An unrestrained and disinterested Ishii proves to be a dangerous combination and Executioner II: Karate Inferno quickly devolves from a fun, Batman ‘66 or Danger: Diabolik (1968) take on the material into childish, laborious jokes about runny noses, rising from the sewer covered in shit, breastfeeding perverts, raping unconscious women, and innumerable gags about urination. The graphic violence and action is all moved to the climax, replaced by long scenes of characters holding meetings and arguing with each other. Occasionally, a joke will land, like the bad guys reacting a subway ad with the real-world Sonny Chiba on it or disguising himself as decorative samurai armor (a reference to the first film), or Sakura spending most of the film trying to do intricate thievery with a large piece of table super-glued onto his hand and the last-minute cameos of Tetsurô Tanba and Etsuko Shihomi. Overall, though, it’s easy to see why Arrow sort of included Karate Inferno as an extra feature, rather than a standalone disc.
Outlaw Masters of Japanese Film by Chris D. (I.B. Tauris, 2005)
The Street Fighter and its sequels ended up being re-released again and again, while the Executioner movies sat on a shelf stateside until minor studio Crash Cinema put them out on non-anamorphic DVD and VHS in 2002 (with minor edits to boot). According to Arrow’s own description, these new 1080p transfers were produced and supplied by Toei from the ‘best available archival materials’ with additional grading and picture restoration by Arrow Films at R3Store Studios. ‘Best available’ is a fair warning, as there are signs of damage throughout each film, but the results aren’t as messy as we’ve seen from other Arrow Toei Blu-rays, such as the Female Prisoner Scorpion collection, which were mastered from battered print materials. The shortcomings can mostly be seen in the harsh contrast levels, especially during darker/nighttime shots. Occasionally, there is a shimmer effect wiggling between the highest contrasting edges, which kind of looks like old analog tape overmodulation, but, on closer inspection, is just a chunky grain issue. The second movie features a little additional pulsing, as well. Outside of darkness and artifacting, the new grading strikes a nice balance between the films’ naturalistic and cartoonish extremes with vivid colors and plenty of fine texture.
Both films in this set are presented in uncompressed LPCM and their original Japanese mono. These are very similar to other mixes from the era that prioritize dialogue and simple foley effects with little concern for complex layering. Everything is a bit tinny and dialogue can be hissy, but, again, this isn’t unexpected and there’s very little significant damage to the tracks. Composer Hajime Kaburagi supplied the soundtracks for both films, combining the brassy big band and rock compositions typical of this type of ‘70s Japanese action with a few Ennio Morricione-esque spaghetti western stabs and twangs. In both cases, the music exhibits better range and clarity than dialogue or effects.
The Executioner also includes a quality, American-made English dub, produced by Minotaur Productions Inc. for the film's US theatrical release in 1978. Arrow had to conform the dub to the uncut Japanese version for the first time (at least officially) and did so using two archive masters. It is also presented in uncompressed LPCM mono and is arguably a little cleaner than the Japanese dub, though it is also more muffled and Kaburagi’s music is diluted.
Commentary on The Executioner with Chris Poggiali and Marc Walkow – Poggiali, the co-author of These Fists Break Bricks (with Grady Hendrix, Mondo, 2022) and Walkow, the producer of an endless number of retrospective docs/featurettes on Japanese cult films, offer up a friendly, fact-filled discussion about the careers of the cast & crew, the state of Japanese filmmaking at the time, and the production of this and similar movies at Toei.
The Karate King (29:51, HD) – A new featurette on actor Sonny Chiba, featuring author/critics Grady Hendrix, Tom Mes, and Chris Poggiali, and musicians Marco Joachim (solo) and Seiji Anno (Guitar Wolf). The interviewees cover Chiba’s career from would-be Olympic gymnast, matinee idol, and TV star, to his work with director Kenji Fukasaku, developing his macho action persona, his Japanese Bruce Lee era, and breaking through as a Western market star.
Teruo Ishii filmography
The Executioner Japanese and English trailers
The Executioner II: Karate Inferno Japanese trailer
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