Black Belt (Kuro Obi) (Cert 15)
1 Disc (Distributor: MVM Entertainment) Running time: 92 minutes
1932 and in Japanese occupied Manchuria, Northeast China – renamed Manchukuo – the Japanese military are taking over every karate dojo for their own personal benefits. The dojo run by Sensei Shibahara (Yosuke Natsuki), home to three highly skilled students – Giryu (Akihito Yagi), Taikan (Tatsuya Naka) and Choei (Yuji Suzuki) – resists the take over and soundly defeats the general Tanahara (Hakuryu) in a fight. Shortly after, Shibahara dies leaving his black belt to the three students and the decision as to who should be his successor. With their sensei gone, the trio are forced to join the army in order to teach karate but end up following separate paths motivated by their own interpretations of the purpose of karate.
The tagline for this film is “Real Fight, Real Karate, Real Japan” with the makers presumably hoping that by providing a martial arts film with no wire work, CGI or any other modern trickery Black Belt will do for karate what Thailand’s gimmick free Ong Bak did for Muay Thai. If viewers are to take this as a legit comparison then be prepared for a shock as this is a true case of apples and oranges in terms of this film delivering the same kind of adrenalin rush as Tony Jaa’s much celebrated opus did.
In keeping with Japanese cinema’s penchant for exploring the historical and philosophical aspect of its great traditions, Black Belt is mostly devoted to the spiritual and physical journeys of Giryu and Taikan, each representing two conflicting notions and beliefs attached to the art of karate. Sensei Shibahara taught his students to never use karate as an offensive weapon but as a defensive one, demonstrating that an opponent can be defeated by blocks alone. Good boy Giryu follows this to the letter and indeed proves sensei right; Taikan on then other hand is an impatient and more emotionless fighter who believes in striking hard and winning the fight, proceeding to support his case by killing one army officer in just two blows. Choei is the least skilled pupil, sharing Giryu’s tenet but is injured during the initial skirmish with the army and thus spends the rest of the film with his arm in a sling, reduced to role of peacemaker between his fellow fighters.
Where the divergence between the two becomes literal is after General Tanahara commits suicide following the shame of being beaten and his two children come looking for revenge. Giryu continues to resist fighting back, allowing the Tanahara kids a free shot through his guilt, which subsequently sends him rolling of the edge of a cliff into the river below. Giryu is later found by a poor family who take him in but the father has some serious gambling debts and the non-negotiable choice of repayment is his daughter Hana being sold off to a “pleasure house”. This is where Giryu is expected to find he has a set and leap to Hana’s defence; instead his devout adherence to the non-violent use of karate has made him so passive that he stands and watches like a complete wuss. Even Hana’s little brother Kenta has more guts than Giryu and lets him know what a wimp he is. Meanwhile Taikan is happy to be able to let loose with his karate and not only is teaching the soldiers to be as brutal as possible, but is now the secret weapon in taking over the other dojos, such is the level of his skills and fighting prowess, and soon finds himself enjoying the perks of a less inhibited lifestyle.
These philosophical differences shape the futures of the two fighters, eventually serving as the catalyst for a bruising reunion with the titular black belt at stake. Even with a slightly flimsy script, which falls a little short of the clear ambitions the film has, the message that there is a world of difference between martial arts and violence is relayed loud and clear. The main story may be predictable and the ending is never in doubt but there can be no accusations of writer Joji Iida trying to sway the audience towards either opinion, instead demonstrating both the merits and the downsides of each. Many will find Taikan’s no nonsense “strike first, sod the questions” the more appealing of the two as it provides the most action, which is given unlikely support from the unfortunate consequences of Giryu’s pacifism; yet for both men the sole core of their actions remains based around karate.
Whatever shortcomings the script may possess, there is no doubting the fighting credentials of the principle leads, all of whom are highly ranked karate practitioners in Japan. Tatsuya Naka (who later went on to feature in cult hit High Kick Girl) is a 6th dan instructor for the Japan Karate Association while Akihito Yagi (also in HKG) is another 6th dan instructor and president of IMGKA (International Meibukan Gojyu-Ryu Karate Association). In other words they are legit and it shows. Probably just as well as acting isn’t really their forte; Naka pulls off the cold and stoic ass kicker very well and could possibly carry a film as the main protagonist with a few moiré acting lessons while nominal good guy Yagi simply pouts and whimpers like a child about to blub having been told he can’t have any sweets. Suzuki just looks gormless throughout.
In truth, the fight scenes are few and far between and are very short, some lasting mere seconds – but considering that despite being choreographed they are pretty much going for it for real, keeping it short is the best and sometimes only option. The expected climactic battle – shot in black and white for good reason – may pale in comparison to the fast cut punch ups seen in other martial arts flicks but this time it is a case of substance over style. As expressed in the “Making Of” featurette in the extras both Yagi and the rest of the crew thought Naka was literally going to put Yagi away for real, such was the ferocity and authenticity of their fight despite it being choreographed. Again, perhaps the fight isn’t as flashy as we’ve come to expect from the big production, gimmick heavy fight films but this is karate in its purest form, and as such is something of an eye opener.
Black Belt is a film with brave and lofty aspirations in wanting to use a genre noted for its high action quota and using it to deliver the opposite and explore the philosophical nature of martial arts. The audience it is intending to reach may be the one that will give this film a miss while the ones who are more likely to pick this title up stand a chance of feeling short changed by the paucity of epic fight scenes. It’s rare to see a fight based film that handles its subject with intelligence and reverence to the true nature of its subject and with the historical setting, possess a subtle educational feel to it without morphing into a documentary.
With the recent spate of martial arts films starring legit competitors, none have held themselves as true to their core subject as Black Belt. It deserves to be seen and appreciated on that basis alone; fast and furious fight fans are best advised to take this into consideration before investing in this title.
Japanese Dolby 5.1
Japanese Dolby 2.0
Making Of Black Belt
TV Spot Trailer
Ratings – Main feature ****/5
Man In Black