Hepcat in the Funky Hat


Hepcat in the Funky Hat: The 2,000,000 Yen Arm
Director: Kinji Fukasaku
Year: 1961

There wouldn’t be any reason to really watch this enjoyable black and white pastry of a film that only has a running time of 52 minutes and likely was the second or third film in triple features other than the fact that it was at the genesis of two great careers that were to follow. Sonny Chiba aka Shin’ichi Chiba had recently graduated from university and in a talent search in 1960 Toei Studio  had signed him to a contract. What he had going for him at that point – as his endurable charisma was still a number of years away – was a great athleticism. In high school he had been a terrific gymnast and had possibly been slotted for an Olympic berth before a bad back forced him out. Then in university he began training in martial arts and so when Toei took him on he was put into films that very much displayed his physical skills – though again nothing like he showed later in the 1970’s when he really became a star with the many great action films that he oversaw. Here he is a mere contract player, lean and still learning his craft.

Directing the film was another person who was just beginning his career with a number of secondary studio films and it wasn’t really until 1967 when Kinji Fukasaku made the bizarre Black Lizard in which he was able to create his unique vision. Chiba appeared in Fukasaku’s first film in 1961, Wandering Detective, and they were to collaborate on a number of films over the next decade.

It would be nice to say that in watching this film there were hints of great promise for both men but though the film has a lot of verve and energy I can’t say I spotted it if it was there.  But what it is is a spiffy little film with big American convertibles, a jazz soundtrack, funky hats, kamikaze taxi drivers, baseball and constant movement. Nobody is still for more than a few moments and Chiba in particular makes every motion an athletic one even if it is merely him sitting down. You sort of want to give him a strong dose of Ritalin to calm him down. A top high school pitcher is being courted by a number of professional baseball teams but when he suddenly disappears from sight a female reporter (Hitomi Nakahara) starts snooping around as does Ichiro (Chiba) whose father is a detective and he wants to follow in the old man’s gumshoes and also romance the girl. It turns out that gangsters are involved and Chiba swings into action by knocking quite a few heads and rescuing the damsel. In truth, Chiba looks so much younger and slimmer than I am used to that I wasn’t sure if he was the pitcher or Ichiro until the action begins and then there isn’t much doubt.

My rating for this film: 6.5