We all know the job market is crazy at present, but spare a thought for karate master Kazuma Higaki (Sonny Chiba). Here he is out strolling with his little girl Yumi, celebrating landing his new job as a karate instructor, when they are ambushed by rival Nikaido (Bin Amatsu) who is desperate to bag that gig. Evidently times were tough for martial artists in Japan because, hey, it was the Seventies, when nobody across the Far East was interested in karate or kung fu. Er, wait a minute...
Being evil, Nikaido doesn’t fight fair. He sicks three hired assassins on Higaki, including a silver-haired hippie in a buckskin fringe who slings a dart in his eye. Being played by Sonny Chiba, Higaki swiftly responds by gouging both the bastard’s eyeballs out. That’ll learn him. Higaki hightails it to New York City where arduous training transforms the now teenage Yumi (Etsuko Shiomi) into a karate badass. After daddy dies an embittered drunk, Yumi, dressed in chic bell bottoms and a Dracula cape, brings his ashes back to Tokyo where she discovers Nikaido has become a big shot with politicians in his pocket and a plan to seize control of Japan by opening a string of karate schools. How does that work? Well, the politicians pay for these schools by stealing public funds, Nikaido coerces all his students to vote for them, then filters his profits into bribing the government to do whatever he wants. As evil plans go, it’s not as simple as hijacking a nuclear missle, but it’ll do. First, Nikaido and his legion of karate fighters have to win an international martial arts tournament, and only Yumi can stop them.
Etsuko Shiomi was simply the greatest female action star in Japanese cinema. She was one of a kind: brave, beautiful, a singer, a stuntwoman and a solid actress able to emote nuances beyond mere rage. More uniquely, her sweet smile and girlish demeanour combined with an impressive athleticism endeared her to countless young Japanese girls. She was their badass big sister, the girl next door with killer karate skills. When Shiomi retired from filmmaking in 1986, she left a void no-one has yet filled. Sister Streetfighter (1976) remains her most famous film, but Dragon Princess was her best and that is partly down to the stylish direction of Yutaka Kohira. Kohira started out as assistant director to Shunya Ito on Toei’s landmark Female Prisoner Scorpion movies and brings some of their visual panache to this frantic karate actioner from the same legendary studio. Camerawork in Japanese fight fare of the Seventies was often wildly hit and miss, but here fluid tracking shots, ingenious angles and breakneck editing ably complement the frenzied fight choreography.
Toei action movies routinely had an anti-authoritarian bent, as so it proves with Dragon Princess where Yumi lends her fighting fists to help hustlers and street punks defend their turf against more upscale criminals: big business types and corrupt politicians. The film is an odd mix of sadism and sentimentality, as glimpsed in poignant scenes between father and daughter (in real life, Shiomi was Chiba’s prized protégé). Yumi is filial duty incarnate and the film emphasises how she sacrifices both her childhood and basically any chance for a normal life to avenge her broken down old dad. The plot veers off on wild tangents while we follow Nikaido’s goons on their mission to assassinate top fighters around the world, then watch them get their groove on with topless sex kittens on the disco floor. Such scenes smack of padding, but at least they’re fun padding and Shunsuke Kikuchi’s funky soundtrack sweetens the deal.
Wild card Masahiko Okizaki (Yasuaki Kurata) pits his skills against Yumi in one of the most strikingly stlylized sequences, a symphony of sound and fury, light and shadow showcasing Shiomi’s acrobatic abilities (daredevil leaps from high places were her speciality), before a plot twist reveals him as a stand-up guy in a dojo full of jerks. Kurata was a legend unto himself, having starred in great martial arts films from Japan and China, from the Shaw Brothers masterpiece Heroes of the East (1979) to the sublime Jet Li vehicle Fist of Legend (1995), and plenty more in-between. Both stars combine their talents to wipe out the entire Nikaido gang in the gut-wrenching, superbly staged finale.