Tuesday, 28 June 2011


Film: Black Belt
UK Release date: 8th August 2011
Certificate: TBC
Director: Shunichi Nagasaki
Starring: Akihito Yagi, Tatsuya Naka, Yuji Suzuki
Genre: Martial Arts/Drama
Format: DVD
Country: Japan
Reviewer: Adam Wing

It would be easy to mistake Kuru-Obi (Black Belt) for yet another martial arts movie, until you take into consideration the presence of director Nagasaki Shunichi that is, which changes the shape of the film completely. A highly accomplished filmmaker best known for art house efforts, which suggests that Shunichi might not be familiar to a Western audience or fans of mainstream action fare.

If that’s what you’re expecting from Kuru-Obi then look away now; Black Belt is a sombre affair with art house credentials, so I very much doubt that Donnie Yen will be knocking on his door anytime soon. Kuru-Obi follows the journey of three karate experts in 1930s Japan. Giryu (Yagi Akihito), Taikan (Naka Tatsuya), and Choei (Suzuki Yuji) study karate at a reclusive dojo in 1932 Kyushu under master Shibahara (Owada Shinya).

When the military come to take over their dojo, lives take a drastic turn for everybody involved. The students resist the advancement, with Giryu making a fool of military commander Tanahara (Hakuryu) in battle. Shamed by his loss, Tanahara commits seppuku (the Japanese ritual of suicide by disembowelment) and his wife and daughter come looking for revenge.

Giryu, being a peace-loving soul, allows himself to be stabbed in an attempt to bring escalating matters to a close, resulting in near fatal wounds. Taikan, meanwhile, is forced to join the army when they return with guns, where he takes on the role of karate instructor. A tatty black belt, handed down to them by their sensei, who decided on his deathbed that they themselves must decide who will become the sensei’s successor, throws loyalty, friendship and betrayal into the mix.

The final decision rests with the weakest of the three, Choei, while the growing rivalry between Giryu and Taikan ensures an energetic finale. Taikan has grown increasingly aggressive, and his downward spiral sets him on a course, rather inevitably, toward a final showdown with former ally Giryu...

While I appreciate the technical aspects of the film, particularly the use of bona fide martial artists rather than poster boy pinups, I do have one niggling concern when it comes to karate movies – they’re just not that exciting. Any attention to authenticity should be applauded, but when it comes to action spectacle, Black Belt fails to set the pulse racing.

Kuru-Obi is a movie about karate, so don’t be fooled into thinking it’s the latest Jackie Chan film, Nagasaki Shunichi has delivered a slow-burning drama that dips its toes in occasional action undertones. It’s a movie that puts character first, drama second and beautiful scenery third. Any suggestion of wire-fu, slow-mo or flying swordsmen is frowned upon, because Black Belt is proud to wear its art house credentials on its sleeve.

The plot itself is very straightforward, if not a little unlikely in the harsh light of day. The way in which the different elements come together is suspiciously convenient, resulting in a final face-off that lacks believability. Not so much with the fight itself, that like all the battles presented here provides intense realism. In saying that, it's hard to ignore four drawn out minutes of rolling around in the mud - like I mentioned earlier, of all the martial arts studied in the world today, karate could never be considered the most cinematic.

The actors commit themselves to the task at hand, but Black Belt fails to find its feet on so many levels. Most of the supporting players are one-dimensional, and a confusing finale sees the feuding factions come together in order to gaze upon the final showdown. I’m guessing they beat the crap out of each other after the final credits roll...

Karate connoisseurs will no doubt lap up the attention to detail, but for me, Nagasaki Shunichi has delivered a wishy-washy period drama that plods along at a tortoise like speed. The occasional use of black and white suggests that I should take the film more seriously, as does the flight of a red balloon that lacks any kind of true significance, but to be completely honest, Black Belt’s moody exterior did nothing to brighten my day.

If you like your action authentic and your drama painstakingly thoughtful, Black Belt could prove to be a worthwhile venture. For me though, it’s back to the works of Donnie Yen and Tony Jaa, because when all's said and done, what Kuru-Obi really needed was a monstrous herd of ground-pounding elephants.

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