by Mel Valentin
SCREENED AT THE 2008 SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: The tagline for Shunichi Nagasakiís ("Heart, Beating in the Dark," "Shikoku") latest film, "Black Belt" ("Kuro-Obi"), promises moviegoers that weíll see ďReal Fights, Real Karate, Real Japan.Ē Given the saturation of the martial arts films over the last thirty or forty years and inflexible genre conventions, and the usually loose approach to historical context that martial arts films are known for, itís a bold a promise. Alas, itís a promise Nagasaki wasnít able to fulfill. "Black Beltís" familiar storyline involves the age-old conflict between pacifism and self-defense, between principles and situational ethics, between abstract ideals and the real world. Oh, and right, full-contact karate caught on film without the benefit of wirework, trampolines, or visual effects. That alone makes "Black Belt" well worth seeing, especially if youíre a martial arts fan interested in old school-style fight scenes. Just donít expect any profound historical, political, or philosophical insights.1932, Japan. The Japanese government has invaded and occupied Manchuria. In an effort to prepare army recruits for future wars of conquest, exploitation, and occupation, the Japanese government has ordered the closure of traditional martial arts dojos, under the belief that only modern methods of instruction should be taught. When, however, the military police attempts to close the Shibahara Dojo, one of the students, Giryu (Akihito Yagi), defeats a sword wielding captain in a duel. Disgraced, the defeated captain commits suicide (offscreen), but the military police return soon after their sensei (Shinya Owada) dies, still intending to close down the dojo. This time, however, Giryu and the other two students, Taikan (Tatsuya Naka) and Choei (Yuji Suzuki), have been ordered to instruct new army recruits in karate. Before dying, the sensei entrusts Choei with safeguarding the senseiís black belt and passing it on to the next sensei (i.e., the student or teacher who best exemplifies the senseiís teachings).
"Real Fights, Real Karate, Real Japan."
On the road to the army camp, the disgraced captainís children appear and attack Giryu. Refusing to use offensive techniques, Giryu allows himself to be defeated. With Giryu presumed dead, Taikan and Choei become karate instructors. Seduced by his position, as well as his first exposure to alcohol and women, Taikan allows himself to be manipulated by the local commander, defeating one dojo after another by using offensive techniques contrary to the teachings of his sensei. Giryu awakens in the house of a peasant farmer. Slowly recovering, Giryu helps the farmer tend his fields and other housework while developing relationships with the farmerís pre-teen son, who worships Giryu, and the farmerís teenage daughter. Itís not long, of course, before Taikan and Giryuís paths cross again, not as fellow students, but as rivals, each representing a different approach to karate.
As characters, Taikan and Giryu arenít particularly well defined. They appear in Black Belt as representatives of two different, diametrically opposed philosophies. Nagasaki and his screenwriter, JŰji Iida, obviously disfavor the rampant militarism of pre-World War II Japan, both in the depiction of the military police, especially the venal, self-serving commander, and Taikanís slide into a militaristic mindset that places a premium on physical violence and domination over the self-defense principles espoused by their late sensei. Thereís not much room for nuance, of course, but Nagasaki wasnít going for nuance, at least not where Taikan was concerned. The nuance is all Giryuís, but even there we know exactly what heíll do and how Black Belt will end (i.e., with the obligatory knock-down, bone-crushing, tendon-tearing, fight scene).While the storyline, character arcs, or themes in "Black Belt" doesnít leave much room for the subversion of genre conventions, at least "Black Belt" delivers superb martial arts scenes. Be prepared, however, for inelegant, sloppy, and rough fight scenes, though, closer to what weíd see in the real world than in a typical martial arts film. Sometimes short, sometimes rough, but almost always brutal, the fight scenes are worth the price of admission alone. It helps, of course, that Nagasakiís three leads all have a martial arts background (theyíre actually master-level professionals) and that fight choreographer Fuyuhiko Nishi knows how to exploit their talents to maximum effect. Unfortunately, one of the leads, Yuji Suzuki (Choei), plays a relatively small part in the film, relegated to Taikanís conscience (for reasons that are clear from the first scene on).
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originally posted: 05/04/08 05:00:00