DVD Review: Sister Street Fighter: Fifth Level Fist (1976)
David KnightView all articles by David Knight
Sister Street Fighter: Fifth Level Fist is purportedly the fourth film in the Sister Street Fighter series but it is such an extensive overhaul of the character that I find it a real stretch. It is included in The Sister Street Fighter Collection from BCI / Eclipse as if it was.
As soon as the film begins though the differences become immediately seen. The usual Toei corporate logo opening is delayed until after the film has begun, and the theme music is very different from the previous three films which also shared the same theme as the Street Fighter film series starring Sonny Chiba. The changes in the cast of characters is a big difference from the earlier films, entirely a different continuity altogether.
In Fifth Level Fist, Shihomi’s father is not an official of the HKPD and Chinese, now he is a Japanese kimono salesman. Shihomi’s mother is now alive, Japanese, and very traditional in her expectations of her daughter to marry an important man like a banker. The most startling change is found in the ‘Sister Street Fighter’ character Etsuko "Sue" Shihomi now plays, an entirely different and fully Japanese character named Kiku who is more of a martial arts aspirant than any full fledged vigilante. This of course her mother doesn’t want her to practice, rather tea ceremony lessons instead. Her father runs interference for his daughter as much as he can to allow her the freedom he no longer has.
There are a few familiar faces in the background from previous Street Fighter films. Kiku’s father Takeo is played by Masafumi Suzuki who appeared in the Street Fighter films with Sonny Chiba. But, the strangest of all is Mitchi Love returning for a second appearance in a Sister Street Fighter film, again playing a character called Michi, but not the same Michi as was in The Return Of The Sister Street Fighter.
There is no Sonny Chiba character as there was in the first Sister Street Fighter. There is no Yasuaki Kurata character as there was in Sister Street Fighter: Hanging By A Thread and The Return Of The Sister Street Fighter. But, there is a good performance from Ken Wallace (an African-American martial artist who was one of the few foreigners to earn entrance into Sonny Chiba’s Japan Action Club) as Jim Sullivan, who is step-brother to a Japanese woman, Michi, who shares with him big dreams in the face of his experiences with bi-racial discrimination, little knowing that his desperation to make enough money to make their dreams happen has led him to hire his fists out to the local gangsters.
Male lead duties don’t really rest with just Ken Wallace, but are shared with Tsunehiko Watase. He plays Detective Takagi, who along with our heroine eventually stumbles onto the fact that a film company is being used as a drug front, and Buddhist statues filled with drugs are being shipped as studio props.
This time around we have a different director, Shigehiro Ozawa, replacing Kazuhiko Yamaguchi. Considering he directed the three Sonny Chiba Street Fighter movies which ignited the craze, as well as the Masutatsu Oyama trilogy of bio-pic films it may be welcome. But to me, it seems like he brought something less to this film than his other inarguably masterfully directed films.
The biggest mistake was indulging in what I guess might be termed ‘crotch jeopardy’ with Shihomi’s character Kiku. When Goldfinger threatened to cut James Bond in half right up the middle with a laser in Goldfinger (1964) it was pretty much a prelude to the camp trend that arose in the late 1960s. That was something that really needed to die, as it grew old and tired fast. Here, in Fifth Level Fist made 12 years after, we have similar crap. We have a scene where Kiku is tied spread eagle onto a log in a lumber mill and sent towards a saw open legs first.
There of course is the film cliché from earlier decades of the damsel in distress being tied to railroad tracks, and even logs at lumber mills, but they were always fully bound, and their jeopardy was not sexualized. I didn’t find this scene dramatic or funny or suspenseful: it just seemed like a slap in the face to what Shihomi was able to do in the first three proper Sister Street Fighter films without such exploitation. She does get free and her wrath is righteous, but with previous films when the villains captured her character, while she was treated brutally, there just didn’t seem to be any overt lascivious indulgence on the part of the writer / director visually assaulting her character’s strengths in how it played out, as here.
The next biggest mistake was speeding up Shihomi’s fights in the last quarter! The whole point behind Sonny Chiba's Japan Action Club was to train actors to portray the real thing instead of trick editing. So why would the film's creators indulge that when they have cast actors from the J.A.C? There were at least two sequences where Kiku is fighting the bad guys and they really cranked the speed of her fight. Such may have occurred in earlier films with Shihomi, but if so it certainly wasn’t noticeable such, as it is in Fifth Level Fist. It was actually laugh out loud noticeable, so I can only assume it was intentional, but to what purpose? Shihomi’s skills don’t need that crutch. The fast frame sped up looked like an old silent movie’s speed. Was it an elliptical in-joke about the film industry? If so, it floated like a lead balloon.
As usual, the strength of any movie with Shihomi in the lead is Shihomi herself, but in this case she is let down by the director and the writer. One of the film’s main strengths is the back story of Ken Wallace’s Jim Sullivan character, and the Japanese depiction of biracial discrimination. But, this too is undercut by the incongruous wackiness of much of this film. It was nice to see Mitchi Love return in the series, if a different character.
This film is likely too off kilter for fans of the second and third Sister Street Fighter films (of which I find myself one of), and may not be off kilter enough yet for those who prefer the first Sister Street Fighter film.
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