Capcom's popular Street Fighter games have spawned a slew of movie and TV adaptations both in Japan and the US. Brian Camp reports.
Although Street Fighter is not the only video game to be adapted for film and television, it alone has seen several versions, both American and Japanese, and thus offers a case study of how a game can be transformed into different styles of animated entertainment. With the right creators at the helm, it can even take on a compelling narrative life of its own, boasting enough action, drama and artistry to attract significant crossover audiences.
The Street Fighter game, a product of Capcom, a Japanese-owned video game company, first appeared in 1987; it featured just two playable characters, Ken and Ryu, young martial artists who faced a variety of opponents, all armed with different martial arts styles and appropriately deadly moves. The game achieved worldwide popularity in 1991 in a revised form entitled Street Fighter II; over the next 2 years, it underwent 3 revisions until it had established its unique multiracial cast of 16 playable characters, ranging from the 4 attractive young martial artists--the American male Ken, the Japanese male Ryu, the Chinese female Chun Li and the British female Cammy White--to the brute strongmen, Russian wrestler Zangief, Japanese sumo wrestler E. Honda, Thai kickboxer Sagat, black American boxer Balrog and South American wild man Blanka.
Each of the characters has a backstory conveyed partly through promotional material, such as trading cards and articles in gaming magazines, and partly through the game itself, in which key information is revealed to winners. Since no Street Fighter bible exists, the stories are, in the words of Don Friedman, licensing executive at Capcom, "like a fable, orally told and passed down" from fan to fan.
The popularity of Street Fighter II enabled Capcom to assign film rights to the game to producers in both the US and Japan, with the intention of tailoring different versions for its two most responsive markets. In 1994, it was adapted into two different theatrical films, one a live-action Hollywood film called Street Fighter, for the American and international markets, and the other a Japanese animated film called Street Fighter II for Japan and selected international markets. In 1995, both films were adapted into animated TV series, again, one for the US and one for Japan. The US series, also titled Street Fighter, premiered on the USA cable network with 13 episodes in the fall of '95, and 13 new ones in the fall of '96. The Japanese series, Street Fighter II V (the V stands for Victory), lasted 29 episodes. All film and TV versions carry the name of Kenzo Tsujimoto, the president of Capcom, as producer. All of the characters from Street Fighter II appear in one form or another in each of the different versions.
The American film Street Fighter and the first season of the American TV series stress standard action movie combat rather than martial arts, with story lines involving high-tech terrorism and military intervention, while showcasing ensemble casts. The Japanese versions, however, focus on a handful of characters and build relationships among them, creating story lines which incorporate character development and emotional conflict, while not skimping on the martial arts styles which made the game so popular.
The American Movie
Street Fighter, the live action movie distributed by Universal Pictures, is worth covering briefly because of its influence on the subsequent American animated series. Its chief protagonist is Colonel Guile, an American military man in the game but positioned here as the commander of Allied Nations peacekeeping forces (a stand-in for the UN) stationed in the fictional Southeast Asian country of Shadaloo. Guile is played by Belgian-born (and accented) martial arts star Jean-Claude Van Damme, who was reportedly the top choice for the role among adolescent players of the game polled by the producers. The plot involves the efforts of Colonel Guile and his team to rescue international relief workers held by terrorist leader General Bison, who seeks to gain control of Shadaloo. The action culminates in a raid on Bison's hidden underground base and consists of by-the-book gun battles, explosions and fist fights, with little in the way of real martial arts. Even Van Damme's final duel with Bison (played by the ailing, nonmartial artist Raul Julia only months before his death), relies heavily on fanciful stunts and the work of doubles rather than actual hand-to-hand fighting.
The film makes prominent use of all the video game characters, who are played by an impressive multiracial international cast, starting with its Belgian star and including Puerto Rican American Raul Julia; Australian pop singer Kylie Minogue (as Cammy White); Chinese American actress Ming-Na Wen (as Chun Li); Caribbean American actor Grand L. Bush (as Balrog); Indian star Roshan Seth (as Dhalsim); and American Indian actor Wes Studi (as Sagat). Each one of the characters is given their moment in the spotlight and are about evenly divided among Guile and Bison. None, however, is given a story line or character problem significant enough to give the film a narrative focus. The movie turned out to be a disappointment at the box office and no sequels are planned.
The American TV Series
Street Fighter, the animated TV series shown in the United States on the USA Network as a Saturday morning cartoon show, and thus aimed at children, posits "Street Fighter" as a code name for a secret American-based organization devoted to fighting international crime and terrorism. Most of the video game characters are enlisted on the side of this organization, whose motto is "Discipline, Justice, Commitment." Some of the story lines derive from the live action movie, while others draw on the video game lore. The chief protagonist is Colonel Guile, now a covert commando in the guise of a freelance street fighter and sporting his trademark video game look of spiked blond crew cut, army tank top and camouflage pants. The chief antagonist is, again, Bison, leader of the terrorist organization Shadaloo. In each self-contained episode, Guile chooses from among a pool of sidekicks, depending on the demands of the story, frequently teaming up with Chun Li, the mutant Blanka, the American Indian T-Hawk, or British agent Cammy White. Ken Masters and Ryu turn up occasionally as youthful goof-offs and money-hustlers (as they were depicted in the movie) who need Guile's stern hand to divert their energy to heroic rather than selfish purposes.
As seen in the first season, which was produced by Graz Entertainment, the action is executed in the standard limited-animation style of American children's TV-- marked by bright colors, bold lines, rounded shapes for the characters, simple backgrounds, static compositions and an abundance of dialogue. Martial arts are on display, but only in short, perfunctory bursts employing some of the characters' moves from the game. The moves most often seen, because they are the simplest to animate, are the blasts of energy summoned at will, such as Guile's "sonic boom," a ball of energy used to stun opponents.
The choice of Guile as protagonist reflects American action genres' traditional attraction to seasoned, battle-hardened authority figures in the tradition of John Wayne but with a touch of the maverick, à la Rambo. The Japanese versions, however, follow the traditional use in anime of youthful heroes who undergo training and rites of passage, with older mentor figures acting as teachers and guides but never dominating the action.
The Japanese Movie
The Japanese animated theatrical movie, Street Fighter II, focuses on young Japanese martial artist Ryu, who undertakes a personal journey in search of knowledge, wisdom and the improvement of his fighting skills. He becomes the focus of a struggle between criminal mastermind Bison, who has brainwashed Ryu's American blood brother Ken Masters, and Interpol agent Chun Li and her American military liaison Captain Guile. These five become the film's main characters, while the other game characters make cameo appearances, incorporated into the action at key points in a plot that follows Bison's attempts to locate and abduct the world's top street fighters and brainwash them into working for him.
There's a clear narrative progression and a sense of character development as Ryu makes his way across South Asia, looking to hone his skills by fighting local champions and achieve some sort of spiritual understanding of the powerful inner energy he possesses. The battles are often modeled after those in the video game and boast the kind of detailed movement and choreography absent from most similar animated fare (even in Japan). For instance, a back alley street match witnessed by Ryu in India pits Indian "rubber man" and yoga master Dhalsim against Japanese sumo wrestler E. Honda in a fight that employs several of the characters' moves from the video game; it is animated with spectacle and realism, but given a much larger canvas and greater intensity due to the animators' ability to get closer to the action.
Street Fighter II was directed by veteran director, Gisaburo Sugii (The Tale of Genji, Night on the Galactic Railroad), and features the lush visual style often noted in Japanese animated features. The character design is generally quite realistic, unusually so for Japanese animation. It is deliberately paced, with quiet stretches between the action scenes, as mood and setting are carefully established to allow the viewer to keep track of the comings and goings of the various characters.
The Japanese TV Series
Street Fighter II V, the Japanese TV series, was also directed by Sugii and adopts the darker, more intense tone of the animated movie. Depicting events which are supposed to predate those in the feature, the series is marked by a continuing story line, which contains a number of plot threads that string out over several episodes each; they all follow an arc beginning with the journey of young martial artists Ryu and Ken Masters to seek out other "street fighters" in a far-flung effort to improve their skills.
Ryu and Ken are both 17-years-old in this story and are accompanied through much of the proceedings by Chinese martial artist Chun Li, the 15-year-old daughter of Royal Hong Kong Police Inspector Dohrai. The eventful story line begins with the reunion of Ken and Ryu in San Francisco years after their childhood training together at a martial arts dojo (school) in Japan. Their defeat in a barroom brawl at the hands of Guile, here a US Air Force sergeant, humiliates the cocky youths and leads them to realize the need to travel and perfect their skills.
Their adventures take them to a variety of picturesque settings beginning with Hong Kong, where they meet Chun Li and kung fu movie star Fei Long, and Thailand, where Ryu learns the art of Muay Thai from kickboxer Sagat (who's a villain in all the other versions). The boys continue on to India where they study under the mystic Dhalsim who teaches them to unleash the energy wave known as "hadow-ko," in which the user draws power from natural forces around him. The final third of the series finds Ken and Guile at war with the evil terrorist leader Lord Vega (a renamed Bison) who controls both Ryu and Chun Li with implanted cyber chips.
There is an abundance of martial arts combat and attention to different styles. The fights carry significant dramatic weight and are staged with great care and accurate stances and given plenty of screen time. Many moves from the game appear in the series, including the celebrated "Hado-Ryu-Ken," which is deployed by Ken in his climactic battle with the cyber-controlled Ryu. In each case, the moves have both narrative importance and emotional value. Because of the budgetary limits of television, the battles lack the detailed presentation of the animated feature, although the short cuts employed, including frequent close-ups and a masterful use of vocal and sound effects and music, demonstrate imagination and innovative design.
The overall emotional intensity of the series allows for moments of violence that would never be tolerated in an American show. The more serious duels are particularly brutal and leave the participants, especially the young heroes, bloodied and bruised. The combat here is neither easy nor pretty. Like many Japanese animated TV programs, the program is aimed at adolescent and older viewers.
The lessons of the Japanese approach to Street Fighter have not been lost on the producers of the American series. The second season of Street Fighter, which premiered on September 21, 1996, offers a striking contrast with the first season. Both the character and graphic design are much more detailed, in the Japanese manner, and much more attractively planned out. Produced by InVision Entertainment, a new company formed by Michael Hack, who had been a producer at Graz, and Daniel S. Kletzky, whose ELA acts as Capcom's licensing agency, the new shows offers more dramatic stories and greater fidelity to the video game. As part of the tie-in with the game, new episodes will incorporate characters from the new Street Fighter Alpha 2 video game. The first to emerge is Rose, a female mystic and purveyor of "soul power," who enlists Ken and Blanka to help her take on Bison in The Flame and the Rose.
One new episode is worth singling out for its pronounced similarity in style and theme to Street Fighter II V. The World's Greatest Warrior features Ken and Ryu coming to the aid of their Japanese master, Gouken, after he's attacked by his evil brother Akuma and robbed of his qi, his inner life force, in a plot twist taken directly from the video game. This is the first time in the US series that Ken and Ryu are allowed to stand on their own and the experience proves a grueling test for them. The episode's Japanese setting, the increased emphasis on martial arts, and the need for maturity on the part of the two young protagonists all reflect the welcome influence of the Japanese show.
With this year's best-selling US home video release by Sony Music Video of the Japanese feature version, dubbed in English and marketed as Street Fighter II: The Animated Movie; the marked improvement of the American TV series; and the impending video release in the US of Street Fighter II V by Manga Entertainment, American fans of either Street Fighter and/or quality action animation have much to celebrate
Brian Camp is Program Manager at CUNY-TV, the City University of New York cable TV station. He has written about Japanese animation for Outre Magazine and The Motion Picture Guide and has also written for Film Comment, Film Library Quarterly, Sightlines and the New York Daily News.