Monday, September 2, 2013

Jason Striker #1: Kiai!

Jason Striker #1: Kiai!, by Piers Anthony and Roberto Fuentes
February, 1974  Berkley Medallion Books

I first learned about this five-volume* series in the early 1990s, when I scored a few issues of the awesome ‘70s Marvel magazine Deadly Hands of Kung Fu. One of the issues featured an article by Piers Anthony and Roberto Fuentes, talking about how they created the Jason Striker series (“Kiai! – How It Began,” Deadly Hands of Kung Fu, June 1975). I thought about tracking down one of the novels (a daunting task in those pre-internet days), but then read that hero Striker was a judo master…I mean, I wanted to read a series about a kung-fu master or something, anything but a judo master! I’d never been the least bit interested in judo, so I never bothered looking for any volumes.

Eventually however I discovered that the Jason Striker series was brimming with what I like to call “bell bottom fury,” ie that funky ‘70s kung fu vibe of Bruce Li (not Lee) and Jim Kelly (RIP!) films and especially Deadly Hands of Kung Fu itself. But this initial volume is a bit more “real world” than the series would eventually become, playing out more along the lines of Enter the Dragon. That’s not to say there isn’t a pulpish, fantasy element at play, but not as much as in future installments; tellingly though the last few pages of Kiai! do venture into outright fantasy, as a sign of things to come.

Anyway Jason Striker is both our hero and our narrator – later volumes feature third-person narrative for the scenes without Striker, but this one maintains the first-person style throughout. You’ll seldom find a bigger bump in the log for an action hero. Striker is a total square, so devoted to martial arts in general and judo in particular that he comes off like a bore; vast sections of Kiai! are devoted to detailing the merits of judo and the martial way and etc, etc. Striker doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke…hell, when at one point he takes an aspirin for a headache that won’t go away, Striker informs us that along with it he also takes a bunch of vitamin C “against side-effects!”

Striker, a 30 year-old ‘Nam vet, runs a judo dojo in some unspecified city. His small school is mostly made up of 18-21 year-olds, and his assistant instructor is a young hothead named Jim. Apparently it’s a cutthroat world, running judo schools; Striker informs us that a handful of other teachers are in his city, running their own schools, and they all vie with one another for dominance. But anyway as Kiai! opens a judo master named Diago comes to Striker for help – a while back Diago took a life while defending himself during a mugging, but the cops saw it as murder, and now Diago’s on the run.

But our hero Striker is a snivelling loser, and is reluctant to help Diago…because he doesn’t want to run afoul of the law himself! Striker regales us with all of his reasons behind this, filled with “martial honor” bluster and etc, but it all smacks of bullshit, and instantly puts you at odds with him. Instead Striker invites Diago to a match, with the unsaid understanding that if Diago wins, Striker will help him, but if Striker wins then Diago will leave. Striker, at great cost, wins, mostly because Diago does not use his infamous kiai yell – a nigh-supernatural martial scream that can unnerve even the stoutest of warriors.

Striker further proves himself a square when next he’s contacted by mega-wealthy entrepreneur Johnson Drummond; the man wants Striker to teach judo to his daughter. This turns out to be the gorgeous young Thera Drummond, a headstrong 17 year-old who is soon to leave for college; Drummond wants to ensure the girl will be able to protect herself against possible rapists. Thera meanwhile is game for any kind of sexual action, with Striker at least – she taunts him constantly, attempting to seduce him, even appearing for their private lessons nude.

Striker is not to be deterred, though – the honor of judo is at stake!! He’ll have none of this chicanery. Quickly he puts Thera in place; he has been hired to teach her judo, and teach her he will. And the young woman does learn quickly, to the point where she can easily defend herself. She also apparently falls in love with Striker, and says she’ll wait for him so that they can one day marry(?), and other such things that sort of come out of nowhere. But anyway this sequence soon ends and next Striker, due to a fighting match against an old student that goes wrong, ends up as the American judo rep in the Martial Open, to be held down in Nicaragua!

This proves to take up the majority of the novel. The Martial Open will see each martial sport go up against one another: karate, kung-fu, Thai kickboxing, regular boxing, and of course judo. Helming the Open is Vincente Pedro, so wealthy that he rules this portion of Nicaragua, and thus the Match will play out with no government interference. Also Pedro is confined to a wheelchair (thanks to an old judo injury, wouldn’t you know – and guess what, he now hates all judo practicioners!).

To be honest, this Martial Open stuff is a bit trying. Anthony and Fuentes do their best to make it all exciting, but it all comes off like an extended sports magazine feature, with blow-by-blow recaps of say karate versus kung-fu or whatever. In addition to Striker’s fights we read about all the other fights, which Striker either watches from the audience or later views on film. The fights aren’t to the death, though some fighters do die, but ultimately the contests lack the fight-or-die spirit more expected in the men’s adventure genre; they just come off like slightly more brutal karate tournaments. (Or, better yet, a less trashy UFC.)

Now, Striker might not want to harbor fugitives or take advantage of nubile young women who throw themselves at him, but he has absolutely no problems with screwing 15 year-old girls!! Seriously. As a way to destress, each night Striker skinny dips in the opulent pool on Pedro’s massive estate. And each night he runs into a similarly-nude young woman (girl, really) who makes it clear she is interested in him, though the two just swim and look at one another. Turns out this is Amalita, Pedro’s 15 year-old niece…a virgin Pedro is keeping for himself! Well, now we are really venturing into lurid territory.

It gets more lurid when Striker, due to Pedro’s command to all of the fighters, must take advantage of one of the many whores Pedro has made available. Striker, wouldn’t you guess, is not into the whole thing, and thus merely “puts in an order” for any girl, no concern for age or race or whatever – he’s just doing it because it’s an order from Pedro. A masked girl comes to him, and as they have sex Striker first realizes the girl is a virgin (well, not any more…), and secondly he realizes it is, of course, Amalita. Turns out she insinuated herself into Striker’s nighttime swims because she realized he was a “good man” who could free her from her bondage here on Pedro’s estate. But once again Striker turns away a person who comes to him for help; indeed, he’s more concerned about himself, now that he’s deflowered Pedro’s girl!

Complications ensue; word gets out and Pedro wants Striker dead. More belabored matches go down until it gets to the expected end: Striker fighting against the last man for the top honors. He’s up against Makato, iron-handed karate master, and the fight is a good one, made even better by the presence of Pedro as a judge. But, thanks to his skills as well as the ki powers of a kindly old karate sensei, Striker not only fights to an honorable draw but also wins Pedro over to his side – and plus, thanks to the ki, Pedro can now walk again.

The last half of Kiai! is a taste of the pulpier material that will follow. Striker is ambushed by Dato, an insane rival judo instructor who has mastered the delayed death blow. Dato dies in the attack, but now Striker is sure he has just a few weeks left to live. He decides to go to Japan to look up the ki master who gave Pedro the ability to walk again. Oh, and meanwhile he discovers that Jim and Thera are having an affair, and Striker sulks, but then Jim pleads to come along with him, so as to make it up to Striker. (But remember, Striker continuously spurned Thera’s advances in the first place…)

Striker and a few other martial warriors head up into Hokkaido, where they have been informed that only one man can save Striker: the legendary Fu Antos, a ninja warrior who is apparently immortal. Tracking through the snow they meet Ainu natives and later have a massive fight with ninjas, who burst from the snow bearing exotic weapons. (I spent a semester of college in Japan and can attest that shit like this really does happen there.) The fight here is better than any that came before, with lots of blood and ninja corpses…and poor old Jim buys it, too.

Fu Antos (in the "Kiai!" article the authors state this his name is a play on their own – “Fu” from Fuentes and “Antos” from Anthony) lives in an ancient castle deep in the frozen depths; he’s a withered old husk of a man, surrounded by ninja. Through supernatural sign language he instructs each member of Striker’s team to attempt to kill him. Each fails, usually ending up dead himself. Striker however succeeds, using the old man’s ki against him in a scene which I admit lost me; long story short, it ends with Santos gutted, decapitated…and his soul now residing in the body of a young boy!

Anyway here it ends, the reborn Fu Antos informing Striker that he has in fact saved himself, and he no longer need worry about the delayed death blow. Meanwhile Jim’s still dead, and so is most of the rest of Striker’s team, so we’ll have to see what happens next time. Sorry for the longwinded rundown, but there were so many plot changes in Kiai! that I wanted to ensure I had them all right.

Overall I enjoyed Kiai!, mostly because it captured that old-school kung fu vibe I’ve always loved, but I suspect I’ll enjoy future volumes even more. I’ve already started in on #2: Mistress of Death, and can confirm it’s definitely in the pulpier realm, with orange-eyed, drug-fueled street gangs, a black Amazonian kung-fu warrior, and a greater lurid quotient.

*Five volumes were published by Berkley Medallion; Anthony and Fuentes were halfway through writing the sixth (and planned final) installment when word came down that the series was cancelled. In 2001 Anthony self-published via Xlibris the completed section of volume 6 along with a summary of what was planned to happen in the unfinished half of the novel, with the unwieldy title Jason Striker Martial Arts Series Volume 3: Amazon Slaughter and Curse of the Ninja. The trade paperback also contains the “Kiai! – How It Began” article as well as other odds and ends.


Nick Ahlhelm said...

I love the fact that Anthony actually has 1 & 2 available digitally as well.

Marty McKee said...

Fu Antos returns in #5, which is terrible. I never wanted to read any more Jason Strikers after that. But that was also early in my trash-paperback-reading days, so maybe I should give the series another try.

Jack Badelaire said...

Just nabbed #1-2 as ebooks. A buck apiece? Yes please!

Zwolf said...

I've got most of these (one of 'em is a little pricey in paperback, and, as always, fuck an e-book) but haven't read any of them yet. I've been curious but just haven't tackled them yet; I almost read this one for the new batch I'm reviewing, but got lazy and picked something shorter instead. Glad to see they're not terrible... I had some trepidations about a sci-fi author was trying to do the kick-ass stuff, I wasn't sure he could do it. After this review I'm more encouraged to tackle 'em. :)