I just watched an old 1975 movie with Sonny Chiba in it called Shōrinji Kempō 少林寺拳法 (the English title, inexplicably is “The Killing Machine”) which is a sensationalized action movie version of the life of Sō Dōshin, the founder of the martial art and religious group Shōrinji Kempō.
I think that this obscure movie must have made it onto my Netflix list last year when I was roommates with fellow Frog contributor Craig and shared a Netflix subscription with him. Craig studies Karate and modernity and is the author of one of the most commented postings here at Frog in a Well.
Watching bad movies can actually be quite educational. This movie interested me for two reasons: 1) it is a mid-70s movie portraying Japan in the immediate aftermath of war and 2) there are a number of references to war, empire, and minorities such as Koreans in Japan which I found interesting. Allow me to share some of these points.
The first two scenes of the movie take place in mainland China, during the war. Sō Dōshin, played by Sonny Chiba, is spying on some Chinese soldiers who are planning a dastardly ambush of Japanese troops. The Chinese commander, who must have been played by a Japanese actor, spoke in such horrible Chinese I doubt any Chinese viewer of the movie could have made out anything he said, except perhaps the completely flat-toned “Neee shooo reeeebenren ma” [Are you Japanese?] he says, discovering the presence of the spy in the audience of his tactical planning meeting. Sō kills everyone with a grabbed machine gun and flees back to the Japanese lines.
Sō informs his commanding officer that their troops must take a detour only to be met with his weeping fellow soldiers’ announcement that Japan has surrendered. This so traumatizes Sō that he proceeds to machine gun everything around him, with fellow Japanese soldiers diving for cover. He concludes in the narration, “The Japanese Empire may have been defeated but I am not defeated.” He returns to Japan to run a gang of street urchins and cook porridge in his occupied home country.
Sō’s next battle is on a train in Japan during his return. Korean gangsters, dressed in black leather jackets and sunglasses have kicked some poor train passengers out of their seats. They cry, “Your nation is defeated!” Sō, dressed in Chinese looking garb, soon sends them sprawling. As he helps them to their feet he tells the now humbled Koreans:
“If you want to live in Japan, let’s all get along, eh?”
A few scenes later he rescues a woman who is being beaten up by prostitutes in a slum for working on their turf. In thanks for being saved and being given a free meal she offers herself to Sō on a pile of rubble. He rejects her and chides her for giving up her purity and turning to prostitution. She explains that her body has already been ravaged countless times by Russian soldiers in Manchuria so she has nothing left to lose. He assures her that she is still the person she always was and that,
“You can forget the horrible things, too.”
Here something interesting happens. Though the focus of the scene is the tragic story of a Japanese women raped by Russian soldiers and the horrible poverty of the early postwar period, the director makes a move that immediately connects the fortunes of this one Japanese woman, to that of the Japanese nation as a whole. Just as Sō says, “You can forget the horrible things, too,” the camera slowly moves from the image of the face of the crying woman to the image of a tattered Japanese flag laying in a muddy puddle behind her.
Sō soon finds himself fighting the gangs in the black market and beating up and crippling two American occupation soldiers who run over one of his boys in the market (the little brother of the woman above). He is arrested but a kind police officer lets him escape. When talking to the police officer Sō admits he is a trouble maker but adds a line flashing back to his days in China. Now instead of spying on the Chinese we learn that he was their noble defender:
“When I saw the abused people of China I would lose my temper and often got into trouble with the military.”
It is after his escape from prison custody that he goes to Tadotsu in Shikoku where he founds Shōrinji Kempō. There is footage of the complex (as of 1975) in the beginning of the movie and it appears the movie was made with some cooperation from the organization. I think I recognized some of the buildings from a visit I made to their complex when I wandered around Tadotsu for a day on a trip Shikoku a few years ago. Here in Tadotsu the movie switches to a more classic gangster match up with Sō and his boys representing the virtuous “defenders of the people” versus the evil gangsters allied with the corrupt police and occupation authorities. There is also a single anti-Communist comment by one of Sō’s people but I can’t find the scene again as I am writing this.
In a scene reminiscent of the Edo period sword school challenges two Judō fighters come in and disrupt one of the increasingly attended training sessions to challenge Sō to a fight. Among their threats we find these lines:
“Shōrin, that is something like Tōhachiken isn’t it? Just because we lost the war, doesn’t mean we have look up to China’s martial arts. [Kyūshū dialect]”
Sō soon humbles these two representatives of the more traditional Japanese martial art and they flee the premises.
There is one more mention of Koreans in the movie. One of Sō’s friends and former prison companions is looking for his wife, who believes that he died in Burma during the war. He finds her alive and remarried to a Korean in Takamatsu. Before meeting her, he meets his son, who he has never met before and doesn’t know. The character asks the boy why he isn’t playing baseball with the other children, and he says he has no glove. Besides, he says,
“They said Korean children can’t join in unless they have a bat and a ball, too.”
Sō’s friend then meets his long lost wife and learns that she has married a Korean after the war. In an interesting statement which at once reveals the stereotype of Koreans as unscrupulous types, but vindicates the husband on a personal level, she describes the difficulty with her new marriage:
“Old Husband: So I understand your husband is Korean?
Wife: …He hates crooked ways so we are living in poverty.”
The movie ends after a boring series of battles with local gangsters. The closing scenes presents us with a sweeping shot, found in many of these martial arts movies, of hundreds of Shōrinji Kempō practitioners practicing outdoors. We are told that, “Strength [used] without Justice is [simply] Violence, Justice without Strength is Powerless.”
I have requested the only book by Sō Dōshin I found in our library here from our depository, which is a 1970s Korean translation of one of his philosophical guides to Shōrinji Kempō. I’m curious if the martial art ever caught on in Korea or in its alleged original home of China.
I’m deeply skeptical, as I think we always should be, of most everything you can find online about the real Sō’s childhood life in Manchuria in either Japanese or English. It would be interested to know, however, if he indeed ended up spending some of his childhood, after his grandfather died, with one of the founders of the Amur River society (aka Black Dragon Society) and if, as some sites claim, he was just a military cartographer during the Sino-Japanese war or he was in fact active in military intelligence (the two are by no means contradictory). It would also be interesting know how Henan’s Shaolin temple passed the wartime occupation period (seems as though much of it was burnt to the ground by a warlord in the 20s) and the extent of connections between some of the societies associated with these martial arts and the Japanese occupying troops and officers. Most of what I found on Sō online was found on websites of Shōrinji Kempō practitioners.
There are two interesting discursive levels at work here though. One is the portrayal of China, Chinese, and Koreans in occupation Japan in the 1970s movie. The second is the importance of Empire and the Wartime experience in the origin stories and narratives of some of the most popular martial arts (Kyokushin karate, Aikido, and Shōrinji Kempō being the best examples I think).
Great article, it does sound interesting. I like that you say watching bad movies can be good – cheap 1970’s martial arts flix can be so bad but yet so funny and entertaining as well as educational.