• Karate Bearfighter (Adness) DVD Review

    Released by: Adness
    Released on: December 28th, 2004.
    Director: Kazuhiko Yamaguchi
    Cast: Sonny Chiba, Jun Fujimaki, Elji Go, Masashi Ishibashi, Hideo Murota, Etsuko Shiomi
    Year: 1975
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    Karate Bearfighter – Movie Review:

    I have to be honest – this review is probably going to be more than a little bit biased. Having seen Karate Bearfighter in the early 2000s for the first time via a DVD of dubious legitimacy, the film stuck with me and quickly became a personal favorite. So much so in fact that I have the image from the Japanese one sheet permanently inked on my left arm and shoulder. Karate Bearfighter is one of my favorite films from my absolute all-time favorite big screen fighting star, Sonny Chiba. So if I rave a little bit about what is, at its core, a very silly film then please forgive me. I am warning you ahead of time.

    This film picks up shortly after the events in Karate Bullfighter (we're even treated to a really short flashback scene where we see the horn ripping scene and the subsequent arterial spray). Chiba again reprises his role of Oyama Masutatsu, his real life mentor and Sensai. He's essentially been disowned by the formal Karate community because of his unorthodox methods, quick temper, and penchant for boozing it up. One night, after cracking open a keg of sake and letting it pour down on his face (in a moment rather reminiscent of Jackie Chan in Drunken Master) he meets an old air force buddy named Kimura who now runs with the Yakuza. Kimura figures Oyama would make for a great bodyguard and so soon enough Oyama is on the mob's payroll. Later Oyama steps in to smack down an obnoxious American G.I. causing a ruckus in a popular restaurant. He does so with ease, not even bothering to take off his sunglasses before kicking the man in the head. Soon though, a couple of Oyama's buddies are killed and it's time for him to go out and get his revenge.

    After avenging his buddies, Oyama finds himself out of Yakuzaland and hanging out with some small town laborers. He runs into a strange old man and leaps over his head, later to find out that he's the 'master of rod fencing' and in turn tries to learn from the man. After the father of a small boy named Rinato that he's befriended injures his hands while working, Oyama agrees to fight a bear to win some prize money to pay for the man's medical bills. He's obviously had a change of heart since his ruthless ways at the beginning of the film, and says to the boy that he 'cannot fight the coward within me using Karate!' Once the bear is fought, it's time for the final Chiba versus bad guy showdown. This one does not disappoint and proves once and for all why Sonny Chiba is the master of the flying eye gouge.

    Karate Bearfighter, more than anything, is a comic book come to life. Though it is sort of based on Oyama's life, it's more influenced by the comic book adaptation of that story than the actual story itself and it shows. Parts of the film don't make much sense and the dialogue isn't very good – but none of that really matters because this film delivers action, action, and more action. Chiba rips through numerous opponents, at least a dozen during the first fifteen-minutes of the film alone, and sports a stylized seventies wardrobe while he does it. Although the film tries to make us feel something for the characters once or twice (most prominently when Oyama and Rinato say good bye or when the disposable female love interest who returns from the Karate Bullfighter shows her disdain with his Yakuza ties) but this film is no serious drama, it's an excuse to watch a man kick some ass for eighty-eight minutes. Chiba takes on samurai sword wielding maniacs, gun totting madmen, a bear, an army guy, some thugs, and plenty of rival karate school tuffs in the film one after the other. For that reason this movie is everything that it needs to be. The story is simply a framework to hang the action set pieces around, which is why the film works as well as it does in spite of itself. We don't need Shakespearian hubris or Orwellian commentary to enjoy the bone breaking and the eye gouging.

    While the storyline isn't going to win an Academy Award for best screenplay, Karate Bearfighter is pure Chiba through and through. Seasoned fans will notice a similarity or two to a pair of his better known films – the bone crusher x-ray shot first seen in 1974's The Street Fighter is present here in one of the first fight scenes, and towards the end of the film underneath Chiba's Karate uniform, doesn't it look like he's wearing the same fancy mesh shirt he rocked in The Executioner (also from 1974)? He also befriends a small boy here, much like he does in The Killing Machine. In a sense, Karate Bearfighter is almost a bit of a greatest hits package for the bad man from Japan.

    The bear fight is obviously there to 'top' the bull fight from the first entry in the Masutatsu Oyama trilogy but the foreshadowing, what little there is of it in the film, does lead up to it nicely. When we see Chiba catching fish with his bare hands out of a river so that he and a small boy can eat, the similarity to the hunting/fishing methods of an actual bear is probably not accidental. He also tends to growl a bit when fighting and has a rather savage, animalistic method to his mayhem in the combat sequences. When the climactic scene, which was very hyped in the advertising material and trailer for the film, does happen in the film it is worth the wait. Yeah, it's obviously not a real bear but seeing Chiba fight a man in a fuzzy, poorly constructed bear costume and further to see him finish that bastard off in such a fashion as he does in this film (and not before jumping on his head a couple of times prior) is pure cinematic exploitation bliss. Also, Sue Shiomi – yay!

    Karate Bearfighter – DVD Review:

    Karate Bearfighter is presented in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35.1 and the transfer is enhanced for anamorphic television sets. This transfer doesn't look quite as good as some of the other entries from Adness, there is a little bit more print damage and the grain is slightly thicker here, but this is still a very good transfer for an older Japanese film and it was great to see them continuing to give Chiba's films the treatment that they deserved on DVD, even if Blu-rays remain sadly elusive. Colors are nice and bright, the black levels are deep and stable, and flesh tones look life like and natural. The overall quality is definitely miles above the bootleg that was going around certain circles a year or two ago and having a legitimate release of this film let alone one that looks as good as this one does is a very, very good thing.

    Once again, Adness supplies the original Japanese Dolby Digital Mono mix as well as a newly remastered Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound Mix, also in Japanese. Optional English subtitles are included that can be turned on and off through the remote or from the audio options menu. While there is some hiss present in the high end of the mix, for the most part both audio mixes sound good. The 5.1 mix has a little bit more bass and uses the rear speakers to fill in the room with background music and sound effects, leaving most of the dialogue upfront where it belongs. While there are a few moments where the subtitles aren't there (most noticeable during a song or two) overall they are well done – they're typo free and easy to read.

    While hardly a deluxe edition, Adness does supply some interesting if familiar extra features (pretty much the same supplements that were on the Karate Bullfighter and Killing Machine DVDs). Once again, Tokyoscope scribe Patrick Macias supplies three pages of liner notes in the form of an insert tucked neatly inside the keepcase. Macias supplies some interesting history on the film and basically states that although the film is goofy and definitely puts action over story, it is after all an adaptation of a manga meant for younger boys so in that regard it is a good adaptation, even if it throws historical accuracy and plot points out the window.

    Adness has also included trailers for other releases in their Sonny Chiba Collection and promo spots can be found for not only Karate Bullfighter, but for Killing Machine, Karate Bearfighter, Karate for Life, G. I. Samurai, Shogun's Samurai (a. k. a. The Yagyu Conspiracy, Black Magic Wars, The Legend of The Eight Samurai, and Resurrection of Golden Wolf as well. It's a nice selection of trailers, and save for G. I. Samurai, they're all presented in widescreen.

    Once again, Adness has done a nice job on the packaging for this release as well. The flipside of the cover art reproduces various versions of the films poster art as well as a few black and white still pictures.

    Karate Bearfighter - The Final Word:

    Yeah, it's silly but Karate Bearfighter delivers the karate bearfighting goods in spades. Chiba plows his way through the story like a madman, and plot irregularities or not, this movie is a blast. Adness' DVD doesn't look or sound quite as good as the earlier entries in their Sonny Chiba Collection but this is still a very good presentation and without hesitation this DVD comes highly recommended. Viva Chiba!

    Comments 1 Comment
    1. Mark Tolch's Avatar
      Mark Tolch -
      Your tattoo is dope.