You don’t see enough Japanese empty-hand martial arts in cinema, apart from Sonny Chiba in the 1970s, they are more well-known for the great Chanbara swordplay epics from iconic directors such as Akira Kurasawa or the Lone Wolf and Cub bloody movie series, but this 2007 drama film Black Belt brilliantly shows the martial art of Karate in a moving and well-told tale.
Set in 1930s Japan, a Karate master dies leaving behind his black belt. Three of his students then compete to represent the master’s belt, but in-fighting and being forced to train the Japanese army, force them to make choices they may later begin to regret.
A refreshing and well-made drama with great action to drive the story along. The two main lead actors (Akihito Yagi as Giryu and Tatsuya Naka as Taikan) are excellent, displaying genuine Karate in a powerful way while choosing different paths. Giryu follows his master’s advice and does not strike but parries any attack but Taikan is the opposite, using forceful kicks and punches when needed.
You know the two are inevitably going to clash but before they do, have to deal with kidnapping and other dramas along the way. The choreography is solid, realistic and at times brutal building up the tension as the story progresses. Director Shunishi Nagasaki paces the film well and just lets the Karate masters show their stuff, with no quick editing or fancy camera movements.
The film deals with the philosophy of the art as well as the combat aspects, especially with the character of Giryu who constantly questions if his master’s way was correct. Thoughtful and entertaining I urge all Asian action fans to seek this out. I wish Japanese cinema would produce more empty-hand films like this or at least get them released in the West.
The film was released on DVD in the UK but is now out of print but can still be found on Amazon and eBay. Beware of the German release as it does not have English subtitles. (Unless you speak Japanese of course!) It was released on Blu Ray and DVD in the USA also.
FILM – 8 out of 10