In the climax of Shigehiro Ozawa’s The Street Fighter (1974), “hero” Terry Tsurugi (Shin’ichi “Sonny” Chiba) attempts to rescue a kidnapped heiress by boarding the enemy’s ship and fighting his way through a mob of henchmen. Within the ensuing smorgasbord of pain and grievous injury, two moments stand out. After vaulting over a railing and sticking a crunchy landing on a guy’s back, Terry blocks an incoming swing and plows his fist into the assailant’s stomach. A grimace or yell are to be expected, but the film gives us much more: in slow motion and close-up, we watch as the poor man’s mouth flops open and white-orange bile streams out, still chunky with foodstuffs reversing their prior course. A second thug lunges in, but this reckless charge leads to his ensnarement in an armlock. As Terry snaps the man’s limb not once but three times, the victim’s expression—face stretched taut, vein bulging, tongue unfurled in a frozen retch—once more suggests not just agony but nausea.
These two takedowns have, to this day, few equals in the conveyance of sheer physical force and the suffering that results. This achievement owes a lot to the heightened register of the choreography and performances, which extends to the scene as a whole. When enemies are struck, they don’t simply groan and keel over but rather scream and writhe, their faces twisted in agony. The iconic thwack of “chop-socky” sound editing is here given a splotchy quality: sharp as well as gristly, evoking both the cutting impact of a kick or punch and the shattering of bone whose shards spray outward like shrapnel (these sonic textures are made acutely audible in Shout Factory’s recent high-quality release). Most of the film’s violence is visited upon internal organs and the skeletal system, but when innards come spilling forth, they do so spectacularly. When a henchman falls to his (almost certain) death, his impact paints the floor red.
It’s true that virtually all cinematic action involves some exaggeration—that is, exaggeration vis-à-vis what tactically shrewd combat actually looks and sounds like. For many action films, the goal is not so much to show “actual” fighting, but, rather, to make the action feel vigorous and immersive. In films, punches often arc wider than would be efficient in real life, eschewing literal “good” technique for the more stylized swing that, in being more visible and seeming to stretch the joints and ligaments of the onscreen fighter more, strives to enhance viewers’ kinesthetic identification with the motion. Similarly, the comparatively muted, tinny sound of actual fist-on-flesh is almost always amplified and distorted to help each hit feel more forceful to the audience. So common is this practice that, when a film like Haywire (2011) brings its (still stylized) sound design closer to the thinner timbre of actual “live” fighting, it registers as a “realist” deconstruction of dominant action style.
As the Haywire example suggests, what is considered exaggeration (or understatement) depends in large part on historical and cultural context. However, even when viewed alongside its contemporaries—Bruce Lee’s early ’70s run; other “chop-socky” classics like The Chinese Boxer (1970) and Five Fingers of Death (1972); and Chiba’s later output in the Street Fighter sequels (1974), the spinoff picture Sister Street Fighter (1974), and titles like Karate Warriors (1976) and Doberman Cop (1977)—the action in The Street Fighter still feels singularly vicious. Although the stunt team deserves kudos for selling the hits to their bodies, the film wouldn’t be the same without Chiba, who here incarnates one of the most enduring and powerful screen personas in action cinema history. It’s no wonder that Tarantino had Christian Slater wax rhapsodic about the star in True Romance (1993), or that Chiba is one of only two actors featured in Chris Desjardin’s iconic tome Outlaw Masters of Japanese Film (the other, equally deserving performer being Meiko Kaji). Throughout The Street Fighter, Chiba manifests an aura of animal savagery and terrifying strength through a variety of tics. Exaggerated displays of deep breathing, Bruce-Lee-esque war cries, and tightly coiled physicality (underscored by an early scene of shirtless combat) suggest a body bursting with power, while the unkempt hair, crazed expressions, and his character’s general mercenary worldview convey a total disregard for moderation. It’s this cumulative ethos that Chiba brings to the film’s climax, stoking our anticipation for no-holds-barred brutality.
No-holds-barred brutality we get, with Chiba’s full-bodied performance of bestial derangement offering a more-than-convincing explanation for his victims’ expressions of pain. Especially when overlaid with the sort of wooden English dub that would’ve accompanied the film’s stateside debut, the scene courts comedy with its hyperbolic register. The Street Fighter, at least superficially, seems in many ways to fit the mold of the “so bad it’s good” B-movie cheapie. But the scene seldom feels goofy. In the same breath and often at the same time, the very excess that gestures toward parody also makes the film feel more viscerally violent. Even as its patent artificiality creates a momentary distancing effect, the film’s cranked-to-eleven stylization knocks the wind out of us, curdling the blood and rattling the nerves like few action films have done then or since.
This tongue-in-cheek yet uncompromising indulgence in sensationalistic excess plants the film firmly in the exploitation cinema tradition, which, though by no means a cohesive genre, tends to be associated with pictures that shock and titillate in order to make a quick buck. The Street Fighter delivers the rush of good action cinema (or, as Martin Barker and Kate Brooks put it, "the joys of being 'done to' by a film"), but it also has this rush spill over into the realm of horror, hilarity, absurdity, and disgust. And so, we return to the moment described in this article’s opening: Terry’s attacks trigger not just pain but the gag reflex, evoking the viewer who feels themselves "being 'done to'" not only pleasurably but in ways that are too much to handle (which, granted, can be pleasurable in a different sense).
On one level, this onscreen display of nausea works as yet another means of bridging the audience-screen divide, of creating a more physically involving experience through rejecting visual and aural verisimilitude. On another level, however, it seems almost to function as a mission statement, one that simultaneously accomplishes what it promises. Chiba’s vomit-inducing blows are both metaphor and vehicle for the film’s visceral jolt, which knowingly exceeds more tasteful, mannered norms of representation. Just as Chiba will pummel his opponents’ bodies to the point of shock and even revulsion, so audience members can expect the same.
The Action Scene is a column exploring the construction of action set pieces, but it also considers “scene” in the sense of field or area: “action” as a genre and mode that spans different cultures and historical periods. By examining these two levels in tandem—one oriented toward aesthetic expression, the other toward broader contexts and concepts—this series aims to deepen appreciation for and spark discussion about action cinema.