Retro Isn't New: Shihomi Etsuko, The Lady Dragon Revisited
Women’s History Month seems like the timeliest of occasions to assert something bold. Shihomi Etsuko (Dragon Princess) should stand astride Michelle Yeoh (Supercop 2) and Ling-feng Shang-kuan (Dragon Inn) as perhaps the three reigning Female badasses of Martial Arts Action cinema. I say this bereft of deep or comprehensive genre knowledge, but spurred on by my recent discovery of Shihomi-san and the immediate impact her screen presence has has made. Her instincts are honed and she’s a joy to watch. The air crackles with her electricity.
Ostensibly the only female all-around action star to emerge in Japan (even to this day), Shihomi’s four film Sister Street Fighter (Onna Hissatsu ken, 1974-76) series are a rarity unto themselves. Now that they’ve been assembled and received a generous upgrade thanks to Arrow Video, these overlooked treasures have the chance to enthrall once again! Shihomi, a graduate of mentor Shinichi “Sonny” Chiba’s stunt and martial arts organization Japan Action Club, launched into stardom as the half-Chinese half-Japanese Li Koryu (aka The Lady Dragon) in Sister Street Fighter who used a lightening-quick, inexhaustible and controlled fury to uncover dubious plots of the criminal underbelly in Japan while trying to save a friend or family member from the clutches of those same nefarious men. Even though the Sister Street Fighter plots were peppered with misogyny and exploitative overtones, Li Koryu is never once sexualized, neither by the camera, as a plot device, anecdote or by wardrobe. Her abilities are never questioned, and she annihilates men who unmitigatedly boast without boasting herself. She has a razor sharp focus, she never gives up and you can see the gears turning in her mind before she erupts into concise deadly attacks.
Shihomi’s skills in Shorinji Kenpo (one of several styles she studied as part of her craft) and her singular aptitude for action sequences are foregrounded as the determined and courageous Li Koryu takes on steep odds scene after scene. The films themselves, made durning the Karate boom of the early 70s, are swift moving, egregiously watchable and abrasively violent fare. Directed by Yamaguchi Kazuhiko, the first three entries follow a strict formula, arc in similar ways and sometimes only barely differentiate themselves through smaller details, which is indicative of the lightening quick production schedules demanded by studios at the time as they competed with Television. But if we are really being honest….. sometimes that is exactly what you want! The fourth installment, Sister Street Fighter: Fifth Level Fist is arguably the more dynamic, more cinematic and dramatic of the series (and is only truly part of the series in name). This is truly where Shihomi shines as a dynamic actor, appearing natural before the camera, expected to do things other than cripple people. Directed by Ozawa Shigehiro, Fifth Level Fist (the filmmakers final work in a 30 year career) even has something pointed and powerful to say about aspects of racism within Japanese society, giving the more grounded and convincing brawls a sense of tragedy and heft. It makes for a surprising emotional sucker punch after three straightforward vigilante melees that flirt with absurdism.
Shihomi maintained a prolific output for nearly 15 years, including film, television, stage, and even produced several albums. She continued to collaborate with Sonny Chiba on pictures like Dragon Princess (1974), The Defensive Power of Aikido (1975) and Karate Kiba (1976). She also appeared in works by Fukusaku Kinji like Blue Rapsody (1984) and Fall Guy (1982). Her later pictures segued into dramatic and comedic roles where her capacities as an actor, not just a peerless asskicking vigilante, are more on display. Her final screen credit is Tora-san’s Bluebird Fantasy (1986), one entry in the diverting, humanistic and long-running comedic film series by Yamada Yôji (Twilight Samurai). At that time she married and disappeared from the spotlight entirely, refusing even interviews. Gladly we are in the age of “rediscovery” in which rare, forgotten or under appreciated cinema is getting the red carpet treatment on physical media. There are many other Shihomi titles yet to get their second lease on life, but hopefully they merely lie in wait. For now we can relish the astounding violence, the flurry of feet and fists, and the pitch perfect 70’s exploitation excess on display alongside Shihomi’s sharp instincts at her rise to fame in Sister Street Fighter!