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Awesome: 7.14%
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2 reviews, 2 user ratings

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Black Belt
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by Jay Seaver

"Not subtle at all, but karate isn't exactly a subtle art."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2008 FANTASIA FESTIVAL: Most martial-arts films make some noise, at least, about there being more to their practices than just violence, although most wind up seeming a bit hypocritical on some level. "Black Belt" (or "Kuro-Obi") is no different, really, although it seems to take its pacifist teacher's beliefs more to heart than most. Yes, it will ultimately come down to fighting, but at least those that want to avoid combat seem sincere about it.

Three black belt karate masters are learning from their sensei (Shinya Owada) in 1932 when the military police come to the Shibihara dojo, looking to take possession of it for more useful purposes. Choei (Yuji Suzuki) is injured immediately, cut by a ceremonial sword. Taikan (Tatsuya Naka) attacks, disobeying sensei Eiken Shibihara's edict to only use karate to block attacks, not to thrust and kick, which leads to a series of challenges with the captain. Giryu (Akihito Yagi) is brought into the challenges, obeying the sensei's wishes, and the captain feels dishonor is brought upon him when Giryu will not finish him off. This doesn't run them off for very long, though, and soon Army commander Hidesha Goda is conscripting the masters. Giryu faces the consequences of his mercy, while Taikan becomes fond of the status afforded him and becomes corrupted. The dying master has given Choei the responsibility of choosing who will next wear the ancient belt (the "kuro-obi" of the title) and be considered the true master.

This is not a movie of great subtlety or moral gray areas. The opening duel with Captain Tanahara lets us know with crystal clarity who will be the good student and who will be the bad one, and the film quickly bears that out: Taikan is soon working for Goda, deciding he likes women and fights to the death, while Giryu joins with a poor but kind farming family. Commander Goda himself lacks only a moustache to twirl; he plans to not only have Taikan train his troops in hand-to-hand combat, but to use the dojos Taikan takes over as brothels, stocked with girls who have been all but kidnapped. He tends to laugh maniacally, too. In contrast, the farmers that take in Giryu are as good as he is bad: There's a spunky young boy, a beautiful daughter, and an elderly father who does, admittedly, have a weakness for gambling (at rigged tables! it's a front for swindling old men to force them to sell their daughters!).

That's fine, though. It is as much story as we need to set up some fights, and those sequences are well-done indeed. Authenticity is the watchword here: The film has cast actual karate masters in most of the roles where fighting will be necessary, and director Shunichi Nagasaki is guided by the same principles that Jackie Chan and the like insisted on: Full-body shots held for long enough that the audience can tell that it's really them, and they are exchanging long and complicated series of blows which hit hard. Many of the fights aren't really long enough to benefit from much cutting; karate seems to lend itself to the quick finishing (if not lethal) blow, especially in the hands of a master like Taikan. The final showdown between Taikan and Giryu is the exception to that but also shows how exhausting one of those fights can be; by the end they're lying on the ground and just getting up long enough to land a couple more blows.

Nagasaki shoots that last battle in crisp black and white, in part so that the world looks even more vibrant once it's over - the red of nearby flowers almost hurts to look at when the film returns to color. The filmmakers do a fine job outside the action sequences, too - the story may be straightforward, but Joji Iida's script doesn't ever have the characters act in nonsensical things happen in the hopes that the audience will forgive anything that leads to the next fight (until the end; it's not exactly clear how Giryu defeating Taikan will keep a bunch of armed men from retaking the women). Nagasaki and Iida do lean a little heavily on the flashbacks to things we've already seen.

The acting is surprisingly decent, too: Though Naka and Yagi were cast in large part for their skill as fighters, they handle themselves all right during the rest of the movie. I actually found myself liking Naka's subdued performance; it doesn't sound like a compliment, but he reminds me of Chuck Norris in his calm, soft-spoken demeanor; a casual acceptance of his mastery. Several of the supporting cast are also memorable; Goda is an entertaining villain and Kenta a lovably pugnacious kid.

"Black Belt" is a solidly entertaining martial arts movie, and one which I gather karate fans will particularly enjoy, as it is made with more respect to its particular art than many films that are just out for cheap thrills.

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originally posted: 07/11/08 23:35:09
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 San Francisco International Film Festival For more in the 2008 San Francisco International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 Fantasia Film Festiva For more in the 2008 Fantasia Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

1/10/10 christian wow its vrey awesome 5 stars
5/04/08 Jacqueline Carpenter Right up yhere with GOOD KARATE MOVIES 4 stars
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  N/A (NR)
  DVD: 18-Nov-2009



Directed by
  Shunichi Nagasaki

Written by
  George Iida

  Akihito Yagi
  Tatsuya Naka
  Yuji Suzuki
  Shinya Ohwada

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