Review: The Executioner (1974)

Starring Sonny Chiba, Makoto Sato, Eiji Go, Yutaka Nakajima, Yasuaki Kurata, Hiroyuki Sanada

Fight Choreography by Sonny Chiba

Directed by Teruo Ishii

There are karate movies and then there is The Executioner. There are batshit crazy films, and then there is The Executioner. There are Sonny Chiba films, and there is the Executioner. This is a film that defies all expectations and genre definitions. Did I mention It’s also really insane? Insane like “are you f***ing kidding me?” crazy.

The film stars out normal enough. The story begins as we meet a young Ryuichi Koga (a really young Sanada) who is heir to the Koga ninja clan, and his father, who brutally trains his son in order for him to be ready to take over the clan. He constantly disappoints his father at every turn. Years later the adult Ryuichi (Chiba) absolutely hates his training, and decides after a brutal joint dislocation training, he decides to hell with this, and after a small fight with his father, bails. He decides to then use his ninja skills to open up his own…wait for it…private investigation agency. By the way, I do have to mention two important items. One, Ryuichi is a great fighter, but sucks as a ninja. I know TMNT Foot ninjas who are better. Also, he sucks at being a PI, and is in dire need of money. This brings him into the orbit of one Takeshi Hayabusa (Sato), a former police narcotics section chief who resigned in disgrace and now works as an Assassin who only kills other Yakuza mobsters. Both men are teamed with a third, Ichiro Sakura, and are hired by former Commissioner to take down Yakuza man Mario Mizuhara, who is involved in the massive drug trade that is washing over Japan. Together, the crew go on a mission to bring it all to an end once and for all, or at least until the next film. It all sounds pretty straightforward…

…and then they lose their minds.

Where to start? Okay, just for instance, at the beginning of the film Hayabusa bursts in on his target, a mobster who is making love to a woman. The mobster offers Hayabusa money to kill the man who hired him, and Hayabusa accepts, but since he never balks on a deal, he kills the man. The naked woman who witnesses this begs for her life by offering herself to him, which Hayabusa accepts, and they have sex right next to the body of the dude he just killed. Also, Hayabusa has a crazy habit of laughing for no apparent reason. A crazy-he-should-be-a-Batman-villain kind of laugh.

Now we come to Ryuichi. Sucks as a ninja, awesome fighter, but he suffers from one giant weakness. Naked women. Yes, he has a thing for naked ladies, and anytime he sees them he gets distracted enough while fighting hardened killers to take note of every part of them. Really takes the time to burn them into his memory. Chiba is his awesome self as always, and is a brutal killer, even ripping a dude’s rib out during a fight! For Chiba, he did fatalities long before Mortal Kombat did. He should probably sue, or ask to be put into the game.

This film also takes a moment to be sure to cram as many naked women into the film as possible. Does it serve any purpose? Not. A. Damn. One. Also, each of the three principle characters play mean practical jokes on each other the entire film. Like commenting constantly on Sakura’s penis size, or leaving someone chasing their own getaway car after a heist. There’s even a scene where Ryuichi beats up an assassin in front of the assassin’s naked girlfriend, who cheers for Ryuichi to kill her man. There’s also dudes who die by getting punched on top of the head so hard their eyes pop out of their sockets in hilariously fake scenes. There’s even a death where a good guys yells out one of the most ridiculous last words ever committed to film that will have you laughing for quite a while.

The fights are done in the classic Sonny Chiba style, meaning it’s brutal. It doesn’t have the back and forth of Hong Kong fight choreography, as most of the battles are decided in only a few hits, many times only one hit is needed to end someone. Some of them do end with crazy kills like strikes so hard it pops out someone’s eye, gouging another dude’s eyes, or a rib gets ripped right out of the person’s body. I actually feel sorry for most of the bad guys, as they all die really horrible, painful-looking karate deaths. Yasuaki Kurata has a really small scene in the film, but it gives him a chance to fight using Bruce Lee style fight choreography, which he does well, doing a fantastic homage to Bruce.

So you may ask, should you watch it? Yes, it’s crazy like a Troma film. But it has Sonny Chiba and Yasuaki Kurata, which is never a bad thing. It also has lots and lots of nudity, which can be good or bad, depending on your own POV. It all adds up to a film that is extremely entertaining and fun. I honestly never knew what was going to happen next, or what I would see next. It sure as hell isn’t for a general audience, but if you love Sonny Chiba, it isn’t anywhere near his best film, but far away from his worst.

(On a scale of 1-10, 10 being the best):

CHOREOGRAPHY: (7) The fights are all classic Chiba style and done well for a karate film, and Yasuaki Kurata does well in his Bruce Lee style fight. There could have been more fights, though.

STUNTWORK: (8) All of the stuntmen did a good job here. They took some nasty looking spills, and their acting is great. Probably the best “death-throes” acting stunt team out there.

STAR POWER: (9) Chiba is here, as is Yasuaki Kurata, but Hiroyuki Sanada (The Last Samurai,Twilight Samurai, The Promise, Rush Hour 3 (no one’s perfect)) was a star pupil of Sonny Chiba who was able to get into this, his first film. He just finished his work on 47 Ronin with Keanu Reeves.

FINAL GRADE: (8) This is a Sonny Chiba film that came from the asylum. Crazy and eclectic, this is a karate film that has a logic all its own. I’m sure many drinking games can be made here. Not Sonny’s best, but very entertaining.