Action stars in Hollywood tend to have long shelf lives. Jackie Chan, born in 1954, is still making slick kung-fu moves in “Rush Hour 3,” while Sylvester Stallone, born in 1946, returned to the ring this year in “Rocky Balboa.” And Harrison Ford, born in 1942, is back again for a fourth round as Indiana Jones, though one wonders how he can keep audiences from making unfavorable comparisons with his younger, sprier self, last seen as Indy in 1989.
There is a limit, isn’t there?
Tell that to J.J. Sonny Chiba (aka Shinichi Chiba), born in 1939, an action icon who joined the Toei studio in 1959 and has since appeared in more than 800 films and TV dramas. Best known abroad for his yakuza and karate pics of the 1970s, when he was hyped as the Japanese answer to Bruce Lee, Chiba was introduced to a new generation of international fans as sword-master Hattori Hanzo in Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill: Vol. 1.”
In Japan he is also known for founding, in 1969, the Japan Action Club (JAC), a training school for showbiz martial artists whose most famous alumni is Hiroyuki Sanada (“The Last Samurai,” “Tasogare Seibei”).
“Oyaji (Father),” of which Chiba is both the director and star, seems from its story to be one of those twilight-year projects former tough-guy stars use to keep the flame flickering. Chiba plays not a cop, gangster or other standard-issue macho man, but a ghost who appears to his dysfunctional family during the midsummer Obon holiday, when the dead traditionally visit the world of the living.
Many Japanese movies have similar themes, including “Ima, Ai ni Yukimasu (Be With You),” Nobuhiro Doi’s 2004 smash hit about a mother who returns to her family a year after her death. The intent is usually to get the audience to weep buckets — and “Oyaji” does try to jerk tears.
But for this middle-aged fan of Chiba’s swaggering, strutting, volcanically explosive yakuza of yore, the film’s true value was seeing Chiba, 68, in fine, head-busting form. With no assists from stunt doubles or wire-work artists he demolishes crowds of punks four decades his junior. No huffing and puffing, no spare tire, no creaky knees — just Chiba administering rough justice with ageless power, authority and cool. The man even does road work with his character’s twentysomething boxer son, hardly breaking sweat.
When the apocalypse comes, the saying goes, the only survivors will be Keith Richards and a few cockroaches. I’d like to add Sonny Chiba to that list.
The story is pure melodrama, Japanese style. It begins in the present, 17 years after the title character’s death, with his wimpy son, Shingo (Kenta Saito), getting the tar kicked out of him by his punk pals. Claiming he owes them a large sum of money, they force him to attempt a mugging to raise the cash, but he ends up with an arrest record instead of a clear debt sheet.
Meanwhile, his older sister Yoko (Hi-sami Kitakata) has returned home after being battered by Tsugawa (Hideo Sa-kaki), her hot-tempered yakuza husband. Her tender-hearted mother (Yuko Tanaka) tries to soothe her, but is helpless when Tsugawa comes drunkenly calling. (In what may be a nod to “The Shining,” he announces his presence by ramming his head through the fusuma [sliding doors] in the entryway.)
Then, just as Tsugawa is dragging Yoko away, with Mom screaming and Shingo looking ineffectually on, Dad appears . . . and slaps Tsugawa silly, his hands moving in a superpowered blur. Also, he may have returned from the dead, but his rugged build is more beefy than ghostly. (Which made me wonder what sort of gyms they have in the afterlife.)
But just because Dad is back — and the head of the house again — does not mean that everything is peachy. Shingo, who was a small boy when Dad died, bitterly resents his long absence. Also, Tsugawa is not about to give up on Yoko — if anything his humiliation has made him more determined and dangerous.
But what caused Dad’s death? The answer comes in the form of an extended flashback. Dad was running a small foundry and living a happy life with his young family when he was approached by jiageya — two hoodlums who were buying up property for developers planning to make a real-estate killing. Dad chased them out of his shop with a red-hot poker, in one of the film’s funnier action sequences, but they left burning for payback. One violent thing led to another, and Mom ended up a widow — though the body count was far higher on the other side.
Dad’s task in the present is not to get revenge, but to somehow make his family happy again. His time among the living, though, is short.
This is probably not the sort of material foreign fans of Chiba’s old karate epics are looking for — but he is not making “Oyaji” for them. Instead it is his object lesson to his fellow Japanese, the younger ones especially, on the perils of a fatherless family, as well as the glories of traditional manhood, street fighting included. He makes his case with unfaked warmth and even touches of humor, but he is also absolutely sincere.
After seeing him in action, it’s hard to argue with him. Most macho stars become parodies of themselves as they age; Chiba, through whatever combination of genes, hard work and character, makes 68 look like the new 38 — and he didn’t have to be dead for 17 years to do it.