While roaming the aisles at an FYE I frequent, my eyes came upon a most curious little treasure. A kung fu television show. Now, of course, such an idea is not unheard of. The classic David Carradine TV show aptly named “Kung Fu” is one of the most popular examples. And other shows like “The Green Hornet” had elements of Kung Fu in them, with that show having a pre-stardom Bruce Lee. But this item was different. It was a genuine production from Japan, and starred people who were (gasp!) actually Asian. The box proudly proclaimed that it was “available for the first time in the U.S.” and that it starred Bolo Yeung (most well known as Chong Li in Bloodsport) and Yasuaki Kurata (numerous Shaw Bros. movies and probably known to more modern audiences as the Kung Fu master Fumio Funakochi in “Fist of Legend“). After seeing that I could get my Kurata on, and that it cost only twelve dollars, I bought the show immediately.
Getting home, I realized a few things: First, the box art was…odd. It had a picture of Bolo, true, but it was one of him from Bloodsport. And there was some random dude who was not Yasuaki Kurata posing behind him. Moving on from that, I would find out that Bolo’s character lasts a mere 2 episodes of this 26 episode show. Despite these early issues, I can gladly say that “Fight! Dragon!” is one of the best investments I ever made, and is a grand example of schlocky, Kung Fu action at its best.
“Pow! Pow! His Fists Reverberate Through the Sky!”
So let us begin by relating the thrilling premise of the show. Shiranui Ryuma is a Kung Fu impressario of national renown, known everywhere for his skill and dedication to justice, as well as his mastery of “Blizzard Style Karate”. Our show begins with him returning to Hong Kong to look in to the death of his master Fubuki, who died by falling off a cliff. As he exits the airport, he comes across a woman being kidnapped and tries to help, but is repelled by another martial artist while the woman is taken away by a very buff fighter (a Japanese dubbed Bolo Yeung) later revealed to be named “Red Tiger”.
While visiting his master’s grave, he finds Fubuki’s daughter Rika and another student of his master (and bumbling idiot extraordinaire) Musashi Kojiro. While investigating the woman’s kidnapping, he finds that her husband had run afoul of a dark, shadowy organization of assassins aptly named “Shadow”, whose modus operandi is to kill its targets in ways that make the death seem natural, and whose assassins are codenamed as a color and an animal (i.e. “Red Tiger”). Now finding himself targeted by the evil organization and it’s menacing, “The Claw”-esque leader Black Jaguar, can Ryuma save its victims and, more distressingly, himself?
God, where do I start with this show? Well, let’s start with the theme song.
The opening is a gloriously high-energy epic sung by amazing tokusatsu and anime vocalist Masato Shimon. And listen to him go at it! The song pretty much gives you a taste of what you’re in for: some high energy, cheesy, vintage kung fu lovin’. What might surprise some people is the level of talent involved with this cheesefest: aside fromt he actual martial artists and that wonderful opening, we get an almost disproportionately fantastic soundtrack by anime and tokusatsu music god Shunsuke Kikuchi. Among Kikuchi’s MANY credits is the music for Dragonball and Dragonball Z, and the man himself is so revered that, for a while, it was said that any show he scored was destined to be a hit.
I’m not sure if that’s true, but if this score is indicative of his talents, they might be on to something. Kikuchi’s score is pure 70’s pulp, and in the best way possible. From the menacing brass when the villains are meeting, to the jaunty little piece that plays whenever Ryuma is dealing with Kojiro’s shenanigans, all the way up to the battle theme with it’s steady, slithering funk/jazz rhythm, every song serves to reinforce the “classic mood” of the show. In a final coup for the show, the narrator is none other than Kenji Utsumi, Raoh himself from Fist of the North Star (modern fans might recognize him better as Coach Kamogawa from Hajime no Ippo)
The main star is, of course, epic karate master Yasuaki Kurata. And he shares the screen with other great martial artists throughout the show, like Yeung and Bruce Leung (“The Beast” from Kung Fu Hustle). Kurata might not be as well known as, say, Sonny Chiba, but he deserves his props for playing Japanese characters in kung fu films who weren’t sneering, racist caricatures at a time when that was all they could be. And more to the point, his skills are genuine enough that he always does his own thing in his movies and, by extension, in this show.
Not that his skills were necessarily tested in this show. Heroes of the East or Fist of Legend this is not. This is strictly popcorn entertainment stuff, with lots of jump cuts and screaming and bad choreography. Okay, maybe that’s unfair, as the choreography is quite sound, being fast and fierce most of the time. The “bad” part comes in when you look closesly and see the NUMEROUS instances of them not connecting with eachother. I’m sure that it has something to do with it being on T.V., and they therefore could not do the elaborate, dangerous stuff done in movies. But there were time when kicks would obviously be connecting with the air several feet to the left of a persons head…
A Rainbow Colored Rogues Gallery
Aside from some of the production values and the solid (although obviously fake) choreography, the rest of the show’s strength lies with its villains, although not in the way they’d hoped, I’m sure. Taken as a whole, this is the most hilariously unintimidating group of assassins I’ve ever seen.
Things start out ok, with the first assassin Red Tiger being fairly indicative of his name: a big brutish monster with a kick-ass vest on who likes to beat things to death, then throw them off cliffs to make it look like an accident. Although I’m pretty sure this limits his usefulness to areas with cliffs, I can see his game. This continues with Purple Snake and Red Scorpion in ep. 2 and 3 respectively. Both seem like their animals: Snake is lanky and sleazy, with a fancy suit and a blowdart gun that shoots darts that induce heartattacks before melting into the body. Meanwhile Scorpion is a master of multiform killing, using techniques like his acrobatics and hypnotism skills, and gadgets like a mysterious claw-hand-thing he seems to call out of thin air, to get the job done. They suit their animals, and seem fairly straight as far as assassins go.
Then we hit episode four, and hoo boy do things go off the rails. We meet Aoi Neko (Blue Cat) in this episode and, well, look:
Blue Cat is like some hilarious cross between a hippie, an 80’s exercise guru, and a gymnast. He wears a way too short blue shirt, a ridiculous headband, has big poofy hair and is very agile and indulges in pointless flips and jumps during his fights. And, on top of all that, he hisses at people and makes cat noises in general when he fights. I haven’t seen a villain this unmanly since Commander Blue in Dragonball.
Oh, but it doesn’t stop there. The villains just seem to get more and more flamboyant as the first half of the show progresses. Just when I thought that the…thing up there was the worst it would get, we get “Green Spider”, a man whose gimmick seems to be wearing a teal shirt and a…scooba mask for no reason. It is so hard to take him seriously as “Shadow’s stealth expert” when he looks like a G.I. Joe reject. I wanted to find a picture, seriously I did, but I could not since I’m sure the internet has a certain level of stupidity it just will not approach.
It all comes to a head with the man “Brown Moray Eel” (yeah, they really start stretching for titles after a while), who seems like he might be pretty straight forward until he takes off his coat to reveal…something so blindingly stupid that I can’t bear to type it here. You’ll have to watch it for yourself to see. In the second half of the show (yes, believe it or not there are discernable story arcs), they seemed to realize the snicker inducing nature of their villains and toned it down, with no more flamboyant outfits and the names instead being more abstract, like “Black Tornado” or “Icy Wind”. All good things must come to an end, I suppose…
As for the character who were not villains, they are a pretty straightforward bunch themselves. Ryuma is played capably by Kurata, every bit the unflappable, honorable warrior he should be. He is also a boring hero, though, since he is so pure that he presents no conflict, and so skilled that I never got the feeling he was in danger. It doesn’t ruin the show, but don’t watch it if dramatic tension is what you are seeking. His allies are fellow Fubuki student Kojiro and Dr. Kuri, an old lush of a doctor who runs a clinic/orphanage, and exists to scold Ryuma when he is down and patch up his wounds.
Kojiro is a bumbling bafoon, making goofy faces and complaining all the time. And yet, to my incredible shock, he never became too annoying. Actually, there are occasions when, even more shockingly, his antics actually elicited a chuckle from me. Makoto Akatsuka actually manages to play him broadly enough to be entertaining, but not too loudly that you want to strangle him. He isn’t the best sidekick ever (he ain’t no Kato, I’ll tell you that) but he isn’t the disaster he should have been. You might wonder why I didn’t mention Rika as an ally. That’s because she does nothing. I’m serious. Not a single thing throughout the whole show. She just sits in the background and worries about Ryuma, never fighting, never developing. Nothing.
“Hang in there, Ryuma! Fight, Dragon!”
As a final note, I must mention that this show indulges in all the worst aspects of bad Kung Fu. Lingering shots on the actors for no reason, clothes disappearing at random, and people stopping to pose, taunt, and just plain yell hysterically well making some of the most ridiculous faces this side of a circus, this is definitely goofy in all the best and worst ways. It’s also very…70’s. It’s most evident in the outfits, as Ryuma fights at some points wearing sparkly shirts and, god help him, an ascot. Yup, he occasionally turns into a Kung Fu Fred Jones from Scooby Doo.
Best summed up as a mixture of Miami Vice and Enter the Dragon, Tatakae! Dragon! is a paradise of screaming fighters, ridiculous characters, cheesy storylines and action, and awesome music. It is simultaneously the embodiment of the worst that people imagine when they think of Kung Fu, and the best example of that type of Kung Fu that there is. It’s silly, over the top, and incredibly fun.
Verdict: Special Condition: If you simply hate the uber-silly, chop socky action of low budget Kung Fu flicks, then deduct 4 (yes 4) points from this score. It will not appeal to you, and the silly elements will kill the show entirely. If however, you chuckle warmly when you see a stunt double fall over from a punch that is aimed in the completely opposite direction from him, or can allow yourself to enjoy silly characters doing silly things, then go out and get this show immediately. It’s easily the best 12 dollars I’ve ever spent.
Sublimely Silly: 8/10