Though anime traces its origins back to around 1917, its characteristic visual style first rose to prominence in the sixties through the works of animator Osamu Tezuka and developed a worldwide audience throughout the second half of the 20th century through its focus on the detail of settings and use of dynamic camera effects. To celebrate and appreciate this distinct style of animation, 15 April has been designated National Anime Day, giving anime fans the world over a chance to voice their admiration through conventions, cosplay, or a general sharing of their memories and experiences of anime.
Released: 6 August 1994
Director: Gisaburō Sugii
Distributor: Toei Company
Budget: $6 million
Stars: Hank Smith, Ted Richards, Mary Briscoe, Donald Lee, Steve Davis, and Phil Matthews
M. Bison (Matthews), the vicious and powerful head of the notorious Shadowlaw syndicate, is brainwashing street fighters across the world to carry out assassinations and has his sights set on Ryu (Smith), a formidable martial artist who bested one of Bison’s lieutenants. When he’s unable to track Ryu down, Bison targets Ryu’s friend and sparring partner, Ken Masters (Richards), and Ryu finds himself joining forces with Captain Guile (Lee) and Interpol agent Chun-Li (Briscoe) in an effort to track down Bison and stop his mad schemes.
In 1987, Capcom brought the very first Street Fighter to arcades across the world; conceived of by Takashi Nishiyama, who sought to expand upon the boss fights of Kung-Fu Master (Irem, 1984) and inspired by The Game of Death (Lee, 1972), Street Fighter stood out from other videogames by utilising unique pressure-sensitive pads for its controls but was generally met with widespread criticism for its graphics and gameplay. Undeterred, Capcom chose to develop a sequel that expanded on the alternative, six-button control setup; Street Fighter II: The World Warrior (Capcom, 1991) expanded on everything from its predecessor, from the graphics to the roster of playable characters, and took the world by storm, ushering in an entire sub-genre dedicated to competitive fighting games that only expanded further when the game was bolstered by ports and upgrades. Such was the popularity of Street Fighter II that Capcom began expanding their franchise outside of the videogame industry; Street Fighter II: The Animated Movie was not just the first anime film I ever saw, but also the franchise’s first foray into animation. The slickly animated anime couldn’t have been more different from the much-maligned live-action adaptation that released in the same year; it became one of the top-grossing films of that year in Japan and is widely regarded as one of the best videogame adaptations ever produced.
I have a bit of a confession to make…I’m not actually a massive fan of the Street Fighter franchise. Sure, I researched it and wrote extensively about it for my PhD, but my actual experience with playing the games is quite limited. I grew up playing Street Fighter II on the Amiga, and my version was “cracked” so it had all kinds of helpful cheats to make playing through it a doddle. When I moved on to Super Street Fighter II: The New Challengers (ibid, 1993) and Street Fighter II’: Special Champion Edition (ibid, 1993), I didn’t have the benefit of any cheats so my tactic to just blindly flailing away as Blanka or Ken didn’t really amount to a whole hell of a lot. To this day, I struggle with the franchise, which is so dependent on frame cancels and complex button combos, but I do have an affinity for it and that’s mainly down to the glorious slice of cheese that was the live-action adaptation and this slick, beautiful anime that not only introduced me to the concept of anime but remains, for me, the quintessential Street Fighter II adaptation.
Street Fighter II: The Animated Movie begins with a brief prologue, which takes place between the opening credits. Framed very much like the iconic opening of Super Street Fighter II: The New Challengers and bolstered by some rocking electric guitar chords, we are introduced to main character Ryu at conclusion of his violent battle against Muay Thai champion Sagat. Despite Sagat’s mountainous size and incredible speed, Ryu is able to match him blow for blow and even counter his ki-based attacks with one of his own, a devastating Shōryūken that splits open Sagat’s chest and leaves him with a humiliating scar throughout the remainder of the movie. Driven to a mindless rage by the disgrace and his inability to put Ryu down, Sagat charges head-first into the blast of Ryu’s Hadōken, which puts Sagat down and earns Ryu worldwide respect as one of the world’s most powerful fighters. However, in the time following this fight, Ryu has become a nomad; travelling the world learning to focus his ki and carrying with him the lessons of his master (George Celik) and memories of sparring with his friend, Ken, Ryu makes a point to help others in need but, despite his fantastic abilities and fighting potential, is haunted by his master’s unanswered riddle: “What do you see beyond your fist?” In their youth, Ryu and Ken were like brothers; they constantly trained together, and Ken’s more playful, carefree nature often clashed with Ryu’s more pragmatic and focused mindset. While Ryu dropped off the face of the earth, Ken is a much more public figure who regularly participates in street fights for cash. Not that he really needs the money, judging by his fancy sports car; instead, Ken fights to try and find an opponent worth his time and effort, and is continuously disappointed to find that nobody can give him a fight quite like his old sparring partner. Despite the affections of the beautiful Eliza (Toni Burke), Ken is just as haunted by this lack of competition as Ryu is by his master’s riddle, and vehemently declines to fight glory hounds like T. Hawk (Richard Cardona) since he sees it as a waste of his time and skills. Since Bison’s unable to locate Ryu, he targets Ken, whose fighting potential is theorised to be equal, and personally arrives to “recruit” him into his organisation. Ken’s desire for a real fight is more than met when Bison comes calling and he’s easily overwhelmed and subjected to Bison’s intense and horrific mind control powers, transforming him into a violent and mindless assassin.
While wandering the world, Ryu is pushed into an underground fight by a raucous crowd, instantly besting his opponent with a headbutt to the nose. This attracts the curiosity of Fei Long (Phil Williams), a champion of the underground fight scene who has since become an arrogant and successful action movie star. Fei Long would much rather get into the ring with Ryu than heed the call of his director (Kevin Seymour) but, while he’s a talented and agile fighter with his own mastery of ki, Fei Long’s ego means he doesn’t know when to quit and results in him being badly beaten and defeated by Ryu. Still, the two find a mutual respect for each other from the fight and Fei Long gives Ryu the rundown on where Sagat headed after his defeated, bringing Shadowlaw to his attention for the first time. Ryu’s travels then take him to Calcutta, where his ki arouses the attention of Dhalsim (Don Carey) and intrigues him so much that he forfeits his fight against E. Honda (Patrick Gilbert). A bombastic and aloof sumo wrestler, E. Honda is the film’s comic relief and he offers both shelter for Ryu out of a sense of brotherhood and amusing commentary on the film’s events. The main plot kicks in right after the opening credits, when government minister Sellers (Peter Brooks) is brutally executed in front of a gaggle of reports and eyewitnesses. The assassin was Cammy White (S. J. Charvin), an MI6 special agent who was brainwashed into becoming a terrorist for Shadowlow, an underground criminal organisation that seeks out street fighters and subjects them to torturous mind control. Heading the investigation into Shadowlaw is Chun-Li, a pragmatic and committed Interpol agent who almost immediately clashes with Guile, who holds a personal vendetta against Shadowlaw’s head honcho, M. Bison, after he killed his best friend. Guile’s abrasive attitude and refusal to cooperate winds Chun-Li up, but they soon reach an understanding after she shares with him that she also has a personal stake in the investigation as Bison killed her father. Unlike the live-action movie, though, neither Chun-Li nor Guile really have that much impact on the plot; despite having the most personal investment in Bison’s schemes, they’re merely supporting characters there to deliver exposition on Shadowlaw, and Chun-Li ends up being hospitalised after a brutal attack. Guile does show up for the finale and gets to engage with Bison, but is pitifully cast aside with very little effort on Bison’s part and left a broken, helpless mess at the bottom of a ravine, leaving the heaving lifting to the real main characters of the franchise Ryu and Ken.
Bision’s cyborgs constantly monitor the street fighters, giving us a rundown of their fighting potential, strength, reflexes, and other statistics and keeping him a persistent and ominous presence throughout the film despite the fact that he only really appears sporadically. When he’s introduced, Bison is flanked by his three lieutenants (Sagat, Balrog (Joe Michaels), and Vega (Davis)) and cuts quite the intimidating figure; a massive muscle-bound freak garbed in a glorious cape, Bison strides through his hidden facility with purpose and wears both a constant grimace and stoic expression. Tellingly, both Bison and Sagat are completely devoid of pupils, giving them a demonic air; but where Sagat is a mostly silent underling whose only spark of individuality is his lust to settle the score with Ryu, Bison is a malicious individual who demands results and doesn’t tolerate any questions or insubordination. Cold-hearted and cruel, Bison thinks nothing of breaking minds with his “Psycho Power” or discarding his “puppets” once they’ve outlived their usefulness. Bison’s abilities are portrayed as near limitless and incredibly powerful; he exhibits a degree of psychic power, being able to lift and toss people around with his mind and can easily bounce back projectiles and move faster than the eye can track. Essentially superhuman and untouchable, Bison relishes the thought of toying with and punishing his prey, so drops his power down for the finale and yet remains a fearsome opponent even when the odds are stacked against him.
Bison’s mercenaries are a strange bunch; despite his big introduction in the anime’s prologue, Sagat is basically a non-factor throughout the film and his vendetta against Ryu has absolutely no impact on the film (he doesn’t even fight Ryu again, or appear in the finale). Similarly, Balrog really doesn’t get much of anything to do except stand around, look good in a tuxedo, and trade blows with E. Honda at the end. Thus, the standout from the group is easily Vega; hiding behind his blank mask and carrying a nasty claw, Vega’s physical threat is matched only by his perverse nature; he and Bison drool over security footage of Chun-Li and Vega takes a sadistic pleasure in targeting her right after she’s finished showering (making for one of the anime’s most memorable moments of full frontal nudity and, of course, a fight sequence where Chun-Li is brutalised while wearing very little). Fast and vicious, with a bloodlust that matches his sick fantasises, Vega mercilessly slices and beats on Chun-Li, licking her blood from her claws and overwhelming her but, of course, his greatest weakness is his narcissism; when Chun-Li attacks his exposed face, he flies into a rage that ultimately proves his undoing, as she’s able to summon the last of her strength to kick him out of a window. Although it’s stated that Sagat chose to work for Bison, presumably to get the power and opportunity to fight Ryu again, Bison subjects his underlings to the full extent of his Psycho Power, in conjunction with a sophisticated machine, to twist and individual’s mind into that of a cold, vicious servant. This easily allows him to prey on Ken’s passion for fighting and relationship with Ryu and fashion him into a replacement for Vega, but he underestimates the depth of the bond between the two friends and unwittingly brings about his own end as a result.
To clarify (and no doubt upset all the anime “purists” out there), I am watching (and pretty much always watch) the American dub of Street Fighter II: The Animated Movie. There are, however, some fantastic benefits to this; first and foremost is the inclusion of songs from bands like Korn, Alice in Chains, and Silverchair and, perhaps even more memorably, some fantastically memorable lines from the dubbed script. Sure, Ken’s delivery is a little weird at times and Ryu’s very American for a Japanese guy, and there’s nothing to match or better Raul Julia’s iconic lines from the live-action adaption, there are some brilliant lines here: Ken scoffing at Bison and killing him “buffalo” is hilarious, as is Guile pointlessly and awkwardly flexing his muscles while vowing to avenge Chun-Li. Guile delivers again in the finale, when he promises to “rip [Bison’s] fucking heart out” and Bison wonderfully taunts him with this line soon after; Bison also delivers a brilliant callous “I don’t give a shit; if her jobs finished, she’s finished!” that’s equalled only by E. Honda’s random outburst of “I gotta kill this nut before I kill myself” and he and Balrog hilarious screaming “Oh shiiiiit!” while tumbling off a cliff edge!
Although the lighting in anime is very dark at times, this actually gives it a real mood; the film is surprisingly adult and serious, especially compared to its live-action counterpart, and the fights are slick, fast, brutal, and beautifully animated. Guile is introduced at an airbase that greatly resembles his stage and the characters are all ripped right from the videogame artwork and all wear their game-accurate costumes and even adopt recognisable stances; even better, they all perform their signature moves, and even announce them more often than not, with no other explanation other than the idea of them being skilled fighters with a lot of potential. For a fan of the Street Fighter videogames, this is a dream come true and just goes to show that you don’t need to skirt around the concept of ki or superhuman abilities; you can just showcase them and have that be enough of an explanation because we’ve all played the games and we all expect them to have these abilities. However, it does have to be said that the anime is a little bloated and a little short on character development for a lot of its characters: Guile is little more than a gruff, buff guy with a personal vendetta and a rod up his ass. He develops a camaraderie with Chun-Li, who is revealed to have a far more playful personality than is first evident, simply because the plot demands that they get on the same page and the sidelining of Sagat for the finale is very odd considering how important he is seen to be at the start, but this prologue is mainly about establishing how strong Ryu is rather than placing any significance on the rivalry between him at Sagat.
However, there’s no tournament structure and street fights aren’t really a part of the plot; every character from Super Street Fighter II is included in some way, though many amount to little more than cameos, such as when Guile and Chun-Li ask Dee Jay (John Hammond) to help gather information about Shadowlaw but this is never revisited and serve sonly to alert Bison of Guile and Chun-Li’s presence. Sadly, this also means that characters such as Zangief (William Johnson) and my favourite fighter, Blanka (Tom Carlton), are reduced to bit parts, with these latter two simply showing up for an action-packed brawl in Balrog’s casino that is cut short to get to Chun-LI’s titties. Still, the main focus of the film is the bond between Ryu and Ken; rather than focusing on the politics or a military movement against Shadowlaw, the friendship between these two are their unfinished business is a central part of the anime. We get to see them training together, the brotherly bond between them, and origin of Ryu’s headband (Ken gave it to him after accidentally injuring him), and both have struggled to find an opponent or a purpose as meaningful as what they found in those years training together. This reaches a fantastic culmination in the finale, where Ryu refuses to fight his brainwashed friend despite Ken attacking him with a relentless brutality; Ryu is able to get through to Ken and help him remember their friendship, which breaks Bison’s control over him just in time for them to join forces and destroy Bison. Thanks to Bison lowering his power level, the two are able to double-team him very effectively with their most powerful and iconic signature moves, finally finishing him off with a double Hadōken and the United States/Interpol assault on Shadowlaw effectively ends Bison’s threat once and for all. In the aftermath, Ryu and Ken awkwardly part was and, as Korn’s “Blind” blares up, it’s randomly revealed that Bison actually survived and the anime ends on a massive cliff-hanger as Ryu leaps in to confront the would-be dictator once more.
I still have vague memories of spotting Street Fighter II: The Animated Movie scheduled to run late at night on the Sci-Fi Channel and setting up my VCR to record it. I’m pretty sure that this was my first ever exposure to anime and I was absolutely blown away by his crisp and beautiful the animated was, the memorable soundtrack and lines, and the level of violence, swearing, and nudity on offer. My interest in anime spring-boarded from there, though I’ll admit that I haven’t been exposed a huge variety of movies or shows since I used Street Fighter II: The Animated Movie as the bar of quality for the longest time. While the narrative is pretty bare bones and many of the characters are one-dimensional or inconsequential, Street Fighter II: The Animated Movie remains, for me, the best and most accurate adaptation of the source material ever produced; I’ve seen all of the subsequent cartoons and anime and still consider this to be the most entertaining and faithful of them all. Bison is a fantastically alluring, malevolent villain who exudes menace even when he’s just striding through a hallway or sitting in a chair, to say nothing of him being a fearsome opponent thanks to his Psycho Power. I love that the anime focuses on the relationship between Ryu and Ken and is framed around bringing them together for the first time in years to fight both against, and alongside, each other. While this does unfortunately mean that other characters do get pushed to the side, there’s plenty for series fans to enjoy here thanks to the accurate depiction of the characters’ looks, abilities, and special moves, and that’s not even mentioning Vega’s brutal attack against Chun-Li or the lewd showcase prior to that fight, which I’m sure has a great deal of appeal for horny teenagers. Still, the action and animation quality make Street Fighter II: The Animated Movie an endlessly appealing experience and I always enjoy revisiting it to see the action-packed fight scenes, rock along to the soundtrack, and marvel at the ridiculousness of some of the dubbed lines.
Are you a fan of Street Fighter II: The Animated Movie? Did you like that it focused on Ryu and Ken or were you disappointed to see the other characters pushed aside? How do you think the anime compares to its live-action counterpart and which of the other Street Fighter cartoons and anime is your favourite? Did you enjoy the soundtrack and the fight scenes in the anime and what did you think to the adult content in the film? Which Street Fighter character or videogame is your favourite? How are you celebrating National Anime Day today? Whatever you think about Street Fighter II: The Animated Movie, or anime in general, please do sign up to comment below or leave your thoughts on my social media.