Review: Karate Bull Fighter (1977)


Starring Sonny Chiba, Masashi Ishibashi, Kenji Imai

Fight Choreography by Sonny Chiba

Directed by Noribumi Suzuki

Matsutatsu Oyama is the Japanese name for Choi-Baedel, a Korean Karate master who founded Kyokushin Karate, and has been the subject of a few films, the last being the excellent Fighter in the Wind. Before that Sonny Chiba took a few stabs at the character, and made a film that looks as if it tried to be somewhat accurate, but then remembers that this is a Sonny Chiba film, and folks gotta die…badly.

The film starts as Matsutatsu Oyama (Chiba), dressed in a raggedy gi, comes to a karate tournament, ran by Chairman Nakasone, to test his skills, and Oyama wins, but is upset when he finds that all of the sparring is basically a dance, and no real contact is made to test his skills. While leaving the hall angry, he runs into a young man named Shogo Ariake, who wants to train with Oyama, and eventually Oyama takes him in as a disciple, even though Oyama is preoccupied with Chiako, his true love, but Oyama finds that Ariake is more unhinged than he could’ve ever imagined, and soon he uses the karate Oyama teaches him to go wild, killing anyone who insults him or Oyama, and causes a chain of events that leads to Oyama killing a man in self-defense, and takes penance by working on the farm of the man’s widow and son, hoping for forgiveness, but Nakasone has a trap planned to make sure Oyama never returns to the city…

I had a really odd time with this film, as I always have Fighter in the Wind always playing in my head, as some scenes mirror that film, but the events are a little different in some cases, very different in others. The film is properly dramatic, and even somewhat tragic, but in the last act it’s gets tossed out of the window. So Oyama kills this man, who tried to kill him with a knife, by the way, and Oyama is so torn up about it he leaves Chiako to go live in the barn of the widow’s house, befriend the son, but then, after he’s forgiven, leaves the farm to go kill about half the population of Japan without batting an eyelid. It’s as if a producers said “Enough of this historical sh**t! This is a Sonny Chiba film, dammit, and there hasn’t been nearly enough of a body count!” 

While I enjoyed the end fights, it just seemed contrary to everything that happened in the previous hour. Sonny Chiba is…well, Sonny Chiba, but does a good job, and Mashashi Ishibashi once again plays Chiba’s whipping boy, whom Chiba’s killed in so many films I wonder if it’s in his contract. I found that Nakasone was a weak villain, but Ariake was a far more formidable opponent, but his story is cut short just as he was a more compelling problem for Oyama to deal with.

The fight scenes were good, as Chiba’s usually are, but as I’ve said before in other reviews, if you aren’t used to Japanese Karate movies it may take some time to get used to, as their fights have a different cadence and choreographic style from Kung-Fu films. The final fight is the best, but once again abandons the earlier story of the film. The best moment may involve the fact that as the fight goes on Oyama gets tired, which you rarely see in martial arts films. He’s beat, and has to catch his breathe as the fight goes on, and in one moment he hides in tall grass from the men chasing him, and one man falls on him, and the terrified look on his face was classic as he braced himself for the death strike he knew was coming, but died badly anyway.

Now that’s Sonny Chiba. But not necessarily Masutatsu Oyama…

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

CHOREOGRAPHY: (6) The fight in the middle of the film and at the end are okay, and Chiba gets to show off his trademark karate skills, but it’s weaker in many respects to some of his other films. I looked forward to getting a showdown with Ariake that never came.

STUNTWORK: (7) The stuntmen did a great job, and really sold their scenes, particularly when one of them gets killed by Chiba. These guys know how to make it look as painful as possible.

STAR POWER: (9) It’s Sonny Chiba. Look out for the real Masutatsu Oyama at the very end of the opening credits…

FINAL GRADE: (6) Karate Bull Fighter is a decent film hurt by the fact that they chose the wrong storyline to follow. Ariake was the correct one. Ditching the drama to shoehorn in Sonny Chiba action ultimately hurts this film (and yes, I see the irony of saying that).

NEXT:  Stephen Chow and Norman Chui retell the legend of Beggar So in King Of Beggars!

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