13 Steps of Maki: The Young Aristocrats (Makoto Naito, 1975)

KARATE LADY RETURNS!

Amid the success of The Street Fighter and Sister Street Fighter series, Toei Company had found a new star in Etsuko Shihomi and had created its first female martial arts hero, one that was tough, virtuous, and courageous. In 1975, Shihomi found herself in possibly her sleaziest film: 13 Steps of Maki: The Young Aristocrats, a pinky violence genre mash-up that mixed girl gangs, women in prison, yakuza, and martial arts action into a single sensational movie. As Maki Hyuga, Shihomi is the leader of the Stray Cats girl gang, fighting for justice against evil gangsters and stuck up rich girls. Though her karate skills are unsurpassed, Maki is framed and thrown into a sadistic women’s prison. Will she escape and take her revenge?

Making its worldwide Blu-ray debut, 13 Steps of Maki: The Young Aristocrats is paired here with Norifumi Suzuki’s The Great Chase, an oddball action flick released the same year and starring Etsuko Shihomi as a race car driver moonlighting as a secret agent. Filled with unceasing action, outlandish situations, and plenty of female resistance to male domination, 13 Steps to Maki and The Great Chase reveal new shades to Etsuko Shihomi’s stardom and stand as spectacular examples of Japanese exploitation in the 1970s.

Special Edition Contents:

  • High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation of 13 Steps of Maki: The Young Aristocrats and The Great Chase
  • Original uncompressed Japanese mono audio on both films
  • Optional newly translated English subtitles on both films
  • New video interviews with actor Shinichi “Sonny” Chiba and director Makoto Naito
  • Theatrical trailers for both films
  • Stills and poster galleries for both films
  • Reversible sleeve featuring newly commissioned artwork by Kungfubob O’Brien

What’s that, loyal Arrowhead? You’ve watched the Sister Street Fighter Collection and want more of Etsuko Shihomi? You’ve watched the Stray Cat Rock Collection and crave more girl gang movies? You’ve watched the Female Prisoner Scorpion Collection and need more women in prison films? You’ve watched Doberman Cop and Wolf Cop and demand more of that goofy ’70s action film adrenaline rush? Fear not! Your salvation is a mere 13 steps (and 78 minutes) away thanks to Makoto Naito’s Wakai kizoku-tachi: 13-kaidan no Maki13 Steps of Maki: The Young Aristocrats (1975).

13 Steps of Maki PosterEtsuko Shihomi stars as Maki Hyuga, a.k.a. Maki of the 13 Steps, a karate master and leader of the Stray Cats girl gang. What are the 13 Steps you ask? The opening song says, “This world is 13 steps after all” and so I have no idea, but that doesn’t stop Maki from regularly rocking shirts and coats emblazoned with the number “13.” (It’s a look I like to think of as the “Maki Hyuga Collection.”) You might also wonder who are “The Young Aristocrats?” Again, the film offers little insight, although some versions of the movie use “The Young Aristocrats” as its main title while others translate it as “Young Nobility,” potentially describing the proudly imperious manner of Maki and the Stray Cats. The film opens with Maki saving two partially stripped women tied to a set of railroad tracks by another girl gang. Maki dispatches the gang single-handed, looking stylish in red gloves, a white trench coat, flared pants, a chrome belt, and a navy top with her requisite “13” printed on the chest in red. A gang of rowdy men in leather jackets also show up for good measure but they’re no match for our hero’s flurry of shouts, punches, and high kicks. Maki is thus introduced unquestionably as a star and a hero: nobly protecting the victimized, youthfully fashion forward in her style, and altogether a righteous badass whether fighting men or women. Maybe that “Young Nobility” subtitle isn’t so random as Maki is an empress among subjects.

Young AristocratIntroductory ass-kicking in the books, 13 Steps of Maki ostensibly pits its titular hero and her Stray Cats against two rivals. The first is a group of yakuza trafficking young women through drugs and violence, and the other is rich girl Takako Ebihara (Misa Ohara), whose father operates the successful Ebihara Tourism company. As it just so happens, Ebihara Tourism critically relies on the gangsters to supply it with young women for work overseas and Takako’s father is pressured to bring the yakuza chief into the company legitimately, risking Ebihara Tourism’s polished image. When Takako’s haughty attitude runs her afoul of the Stray Cats, she demands that the yakuza, including its honourable martial artist Tetsuya Eto (Tatsuya Nanjô), get her revenge for her. The gangsters already have a grudge against Maki and her girl gang for protecting a young woman who escaped their clutches and so they capture the Stray Cats and have Maki imprisoned under the supervision of a corrupt warden and some grudge-holding cellmates (that same girl gang from the opening fight scene). Maki eventually escapes having won the admiration of her former girl gang adversaries, and a budding romance between Takako and Eto inspires a plot to bring down the yakuza from within. Takako agrees to marry the yakuza’s leader, bringing him into the family and the business, and hoping to catch him and his crew with their guard down on the wedding day. All of this leads to an epic battle that sees Maki spinning and swinging some nunchucks off of some gangsters and spilling plenty of blood in the process, but the movie doesn’t back end it thrills. Makoto Naito’s film rarely lags, preferring killer over filler, and 13 Steps of Maki offers martial arts duels in empty swimming pools, naked carousel rides, involuntary back tattoos, sex dens, burnings, explosions, bodily prunings, a strangulation using the assailant’s own hair, and the song “Nina” sung by Shihomi herself.

Sue ShihomiFor those who have not read Patrick Macias’ liner notes for Arrow Video’s Sister Street Fighter Collection, Etsuko Shihomi (or “Sue”) was born on October 29, 1955, and was formally admitted into Sonny Chiba’s Japan Action Club in 1972 while she still attended high school. Chiba had formed JAC a few years earlier as a training ground for martial artists and stunt performers and Shihomi quickly distinguished herself, becoming Japan’s first female action film star through supporting roles in Chiba’s films and lead performances in movies of her own. The Toei studio ramped up its output in the 1970s as audiences embraced the wave of martial arts actioners produced locally and abroad and Sue was an ideal star. She was beautiful, physically talented, and, most importantly, single-minded in her action star duties, often performing while beat up and bruised yet never complaining and always refusing a stand-in. She played supporting roles in Chiba’s own Street Fighter films, and her Sister Street Fighter movies conspicuously found some device to insert Chiba into the film no matter how slight the connection. Made within the same window as the Street Fighter and Sister Street Fighter movies, 13 Steps of Maki naturally employs the same tactic, casting Chiba as Maki’s lost brother, a plot contrivance that never results in the arrival of Chiba and is used only to expose Maki to greater risk. Shihomi married musician Tsuyoshi Nagabuchi in 1987 and retired from the film industry entirely, accepting no more roles and refusing to provide even interviews commenting on her past work.

Gonraku ComicsDirector Makoto Naito is perhaps best know for directing seven films in the Wolves in the City franchise. Also known as the Delinquent Boss or Juvenile Boss series, these 17 films starred Tatsuo Umemiya as the leader of a motorcycle gang called The Capones and it mixed lowbrow comedy, softcore pinku sex, and shocking violence while still finding time to co-opt into the gang the racist iconography of the Nazis and Confederate South. The series ran from 1968 to 1974 and while its quality is debatable, it certainly qualified Naito to direct this frothy and hardbitten genre mixer. 13 Steps of Maki adapted Ikki Kajiwara and Masaaki Sato’s comic series and the film credits the pair with co-screenwriters Takeo Kaneko and director Makoto Naito. Collections released of the manga series reference the film by including images of Shihomi on some of the paper bands that accompanied the volumes. One might suspect that the film’s dynamic style and packed frames took some inspiration from the comic series, but some credit must surely rest with cinematographer Yoshikazu Yamazawa who worked on MMC! favourites like Hajime Sato’s Golden Bat, Hideo Gosha’s Violent City, Nobuo Nakagawa’s Snake Woman’s Curse, a number of early Kinji Fukasaku films, and various Wolves in the City movies.

The Great Chase PosterFor many, 13 Steps of Maki is considered a superior movie to any of the four Sister Street Fighter films and you’ll find no argument at MMC! 13 Steps of Maki is decidedly more intense, more dynamic, and more uniformly action-packed than any of the Sister Street Fighter films, although they do share a number of the same recurring elements: Shimomi as the near-unparalleled martial artist, the villainous group infiltrated by a virtuous male martial arts master (channeling more than a little Bruce Lee in their performances), some cruel objectification of women by the movie’s villain, the occasional henchmen highly trained in some unusual specialty or esoteric weapon, and Shihomi displaying her talent with nunchucks. By all accounts, 13 Steps of Maki does nearly all of these elements better than the Sister Street Fighter films and with Arrow Video having already got into the Etsuko Shihomi business, MMC! would love to see this performer’s better, more interesting work find English language release. If there is a knock against an Arrow Video edition of 13 Steps of Maki, it may be its short runtime and so MMC! happily suggests backing it up with another Etsuko Shihomi film from 1975, The Great Chase (Norifumi Suzuki). Notably sillier that 13 Steps of Maki, The Great Chase casts Shihomi as Shinobu Yashiro, a champion race car driver with a fondness for polka dots and who moonlights as a Japanese secret agent in hopes of finding the truth about her father’s death. Yashiro dons various Clouseau-esque disguises, partners with a female wrestler who sings and brawls in a nightclub act, infiltrates a needlessly sacrilegious Catholic ceremony held by a gang of drug smugglers, and matches wits with an evil boss who dresses up as a ferocious bear for his consensual and non-consensual sexy times, all before the obligatory Japanese showdown in an explosive quarry!

By all rights, 1975 was a wonderfully wacky year for Etsuko Shihomi and Japanese movie audiences alike. Please Arrow Video, take us back to those times once again!

Credits: This post owes thanks to Patrick Macias’ booklet essays in Arrow Video’s Sister Street Fighter Collection, as well as Rhythm Zaveri’s post at Asian Movie Pulse and the review at Films from the Far Reaches.

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