Sonny Chiba’s Dragon Princess (1976)

Country: Japan
Director: Yutaka Kohira
Starring: Etsuko Shihomi, Sonny Chiba, Yasuaki Kurata, Masashi Ishibashi, Jirô Chiba, Bin Amatsu
Original Music: Shunsuke Kikuchi
AKA: Which is Stronger, Karate or Tiger?
Original Title: Hissatsu onna kenshi

In some parts of the world, this film was known as Sonny Chiba’s Dragon Princess, which would imply that this is a Sonny Chiba film. Yes, he’s in it. Don’t you worry about that – for a full twenty minutes. Then he hands the reigns over to his frequent co-star Etsuko Shihomi. But it must be said, Shihomi is no slouch herself, and for the most part, Dragon Princess is a fairly entertaining – however I will add this caveat. Seek out a decent quality print. The print I watched was pretty ragged pan & scan version – taken from a worn VHS dupe. The fight scenes often appeared clunky – not because they were badly choreographed – but because one of the fighters was cropped off the screen. The film was also dubbed quite atrociously. So while I enjoyed it, I doubt many viewers have the tolerance for crap that I do.

At the risk of making the film sound like a work-place drama, as the film opens, a job position has opened up to become Tokyo’s leading karate instructor. The front runner to get the job is Kazuma Higaki (Sonny Chiba). The second favourite is a fellow named Nikaido, and in an old run down church, on a cold and dark stormy night, he challenges Kazuma to a fight. Kazuma arrives with his daughter Yumi in tow. However, Kazuma does not believe there is a reason to fight. Surely they can work it out, without having to resort to violence.

Nikaido doesn’t see it that way and bullies Kazuma into the fight. It’s a bad move, as Kazuma is a superior martial artist, and is winning the battle. But Nikaido is not the type of guy to accept defeat magnanimously. He has three other fighters hidden in the church – and they appear from the shadows armed with knives, poles, swords, etc.

Despite the weight of numbers being against him, Kazuma still acquits himself well, that is until one of Nikaido’s goons grabs Yumi. Kazuma grabs a rope, and swings to her aid, kicking off the aggressor. The as he moves to drag her to safety, one of the fiends throws a knife at her. Kazuma leaps into the knife’s path. It hits him in the left eye.

Now Kazuma is impeded, the other goons swoop in for the kill. They stab him with a sword. Kazuma is defeated. However, Nikaido agrees to spare Kazuma’s life, if he leaves Tokyo for good. Kazuma agrees.

The film cuts to New York. Actually the subtitle says New York, but later in the dubbed dialogue, it suggests it is San Francisco. Either way, Kazuma and Yumi have settled somewhere in America. Kazuma, with an eye-patch, is bitter about the betrayal in the church, and sets about claiming his revenge. Yumi is to be his instrument of vengeance, and he subjects her to a brutal training regime.

After she grows to adulthood, Kazuma dies, and Yumi (now grown into Etsuko Shihomi) returns to Tokyo. First thing she does, is head to Nikaido ‘s dojo and lay down a challenge. As she is a woman, she is ridiculed and scorned, but, oh, that’ll do. You know where this is headed, right?

Throw in a pack of killer dogs, loads of fight scenes, dizzying camera work, a bad guy who is really good guy, the promise of a martial arts tournament (that never really takes place), and all the requisite elements are in place for this type of film.

As I mentioned at the top, despite the title, this isn’t really a Sonny Chiba film. It is a Etsuko Shihomi film, and it is thanks to her, that it works. She is charismatic, convincing in her fight scenes, and carries the film on her slight, but undeniably powerful shoulders.

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