The Executioner (1974)
Director: Teruo Ishii
Writers: Teruo Ishii
Starring: Sonny Chiba, Makato Soto, Eiji Gô and Yutaka Nakajima

The Plot: Ryuichi Koga (Sonny Chiba) is the heir to the Koga ninja clan. The last in line for the ancient wisdom of his family’s ninja philosophy, Ryuichi unfortunately was a rather rebellious youth. As a young man, Ryuichi wanted very little to do with this family tradition. However, as he attempted to escape his grandfather’s home, the old man would always block his exit and try to instill in Ryuichi the pride of his family. As a grown man, Ryuichi is then adopted by a non-government enterprise who want to use his impressive skills to take down a Yakuza-led drug trafficking ring. The yakuza are using a Latin American woman, who is protected by diplomatic immunity, to smuggle dope in her carry-on bag. Unfortunately, the last time the police took this case on directly, the department was left incredibly embarrassed with multiple dead police officers. With no evidence pointing to this diplomatically protected young woman, the police commissioner retired alongside his best man in order to save face for the department. While in retirement, he organized this non-government funded force that looks to employ Ryuichi in order to operate outside of the system and gather the proper evidence needed to land a conviction. With a sadist leading this drug ring, Ryuichi will have to team with this oddball police force (of sorts) and defeat an army of evil men!

The Review
The Executioner is something that could easily be considered a upper-tier title amongst Sonny Chiba’s massive library of work. Yet, it has remained one of the few features of his that I have regrettably put off throughout the years. This wasn’t due to anything that I did on purpose, mind you. Sometimes, when you deal so heavily in a genre, it is easy to allow yourself to become confused due to the assortment of aliases that these movies often carry. Confusing it with a number of films from the Chiba pantheon, I ultimately counted the movie off for a considerable amount of time before grabbing the DVD for a cheap price. When I started the credits and immediately noticed the name Teruo Ishii listed prominently as the director, I knew that I had never seen the film and I also immediately knew that I was in for a treat. Ishii, for those who aren’t familiar, is the eclectic director who essentially introduced the world to the eru-guro market in Japanese cinema. His morbid and erotic tales are legendary, but the thought of him teaming with Sonny Chiba in order to deliver a Karate tale never once crossed my mind. Yet, here we are, and it is as beautifully strange as you might imagine.

Ishii’s fascination with the grotesque does manage to come out in select scenes. Chiba was certainly known for being tied to violent projects, but Ishii was known for being even more disturbed in his cinematic catalog. When pairing these two together, it only seemed natural that a certain level of violence would be attained. Select scenes, such as the one featuring a gentleman having both of his eyeballs popped out of his head, certainly seem to ring true for what is expected from both men. It is rumored, by numerous respected sources, that Ishii was not very keen on doing this film. You probably wouldn’t suspect this while actually watching the movie, however. It is said that Ishii was at the end of his contract with Toei, during the last quarter of 1974, and had no interest in this project. Having no interest in the project he was forced into making this Sonny Chiba action yarn, but his response was to supposedly try and make the film as chaotic and strange as he possibly could. Taking the plot, which may have been much more serious in its original form, and making it into an absurd comedy, The Executioner is often considered a piece of cinematic rebellion. Whether or not this is true, I haven’t fully verified. If this is all true, apparently the movie was a surprise hit upon its release and it must have landed the director a more lucrative contract with Toei. He ultimately stayed with Toei for the remainder of his most-active years, before moving onto television, but if the story turns out to be true (I’ve seen it referenced dozens of times, and where there’s smoke there is usually fire) then it just makes Ishii all that more interesting as a filmmaker.

The movie has a sort of fun goofiness to it that is obvious right from the start of the project. A hodgepodge of cinematic genres, the movie best resembles a Karate spy film of sorts. It begins with a classic training sequence that shows Sonny Chiba having to endure some very harsh lessons in discipline, which he sees as ludicrous. This establishes both his general rebellious nature, as well as his ninja badassery. These two concepts will be heavily relied upon throughout the duration of the movie. Afterward, we are thrown from one fantastical mission to the next. Immediately starting off after this training sequence we watch Chiba, in a lighthearted and funny little romp, help rescue one of his conspirators from prison. At this point in the movie, the tone is fully set for the remainder of the movie. We’ve seen epic violence, we’ve seen the spy-film details (such as Sonny Chiba using a spray glue substance to somehow form a fully usable key inside of a keyhole), and most of all we have seen the exponential amount of comedy at use. This is something you don’t generally expect from Ishii or Chiba, but it works quite well.

The movie quickly hops around from genre aesthetics. It starts off as a traditional martial arts movie, but quickly finds its home as a espionage and spy thriller. There’s an affinity and love shown for the James Bond series here, without a doubt. There are foreigners littered amongst the third-tier cast, and even a joke that may be a reference the title “Octopussy,” there seems to be an attempt to bring out that international feel that the James Bond titles all seem to have. The movie does a solid job in showing off Sonny Chiba’s knack for comedy, which may surprise some folks. Many may not immediately think of Chiba as a versatile actor, but he most certainly was. His role here, which is a mishmash of all the things that he did great, shows his ability to actually be charming while also showing off his athletic abilities. Ryuichi Koga is a egotistical, but dashing, sort of hero.

The best way to describe the plotting is erratic. The movie is continually changing from a tonal perspective, but even in terms of general scripting it never remains very obvious what is really going on throughout the duration of the movie. Sure, we know the basic goals and plot, but the movie is ambiguous in a lot of what it does. The killers who are brought in by the Yakuza, for instance, are supposedly world champions, but we don’t get a great idea of just who they are or how they are really wrapped into all of this. Aside from money being the main motivator, their sudden appearance into the plot seems to come from nowhere. Not only that, but there is a puzzling sequence where Chiba kills off several men for almost no apparent reason that is also very baffling. During this sequence, where Chiba encounters a large and heavy set black male, things become even more puzzling as Chiba tries to cuddle with this man’s nude wife during the midst of their fight. Another strange bit comes when we see the Yakuza/Mafia man Mario Yabahiro strip his girlfriend, the heiress protected by diplomatic immunity, in front of a party of his guests before throwing Sonny Chiba on the floor for his entire party to beat up. Erratic, bizarre and totally insane, these are all very apt words to describe The Executioner.

The Conclusion
A strange mix of genre ideas, The Executioner is successful because of how weird it generally seems to be. A piece of ludicrous fiction, Teruo Ishii and Sonny Chiba come together to form a spy thriller unlike any other. Come in for the karate, the fashion, and the violence, but stick around for the defiance of genre conventions. I give it a solid four out of five.

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