Japanese Karate films have been around for a long time, but few of them truly capture the karate that comes from old lineages, and the practitioners typically come from watered-down versions of true Japanese karate. Black Belt attempts to solve this by presenting a cast of characters whose actors are actual black belts coming from old lineages. However, that doesn’t guarantee a good film. So how good is Black Belt?
Pretty darn good, but not without its problems.
The film opens in 1932 at the Shibahara Eikan Karate school, where Sensei Eikan trains his three black belts: the headstrong and aggressive Taikan (Naka), the good but not-quite-good-enough Choei (Suzuki), and Giryu (Yagi), the student who tries to live by Eikan’s teachings of self-defense only. Their studies are interrupted when a Japanese army battalion led by Captain Tanihara arrives and tries to take over the school as a training facility for the army. Taikan refuses to leave the school and challenges the soldiers to a duel inside the dojo, in which the students claim a short-lived victory. Shortly afterward Eikan dies, and charges Choei with being the one to decide who gets the Kuro-Obi (black belt). Soon the soldiers return, and the students are forced to leave. While on the road being escorted away, the two teenage children of Tanihara come seeking revenge, as Tanihara committed seppuku for not defeating Giryu, and in their attempt to do so injure Giryu and cause him to fall off a cliff into the waters below, escaping both the army and the children of Tanihara.
The story now becomes the tale of Giryu, who is haunted by the death he inadvertently caused, and is trying to protect a small family that revived him after his fall and keep his promise to never attack his opponents. On the flip side, Taikan starts to teach the army karate, and becomes corrupted by wine and women and power as he goes to each karate school and challenges the school Sensei to a duel and kills each one of them, which turns the school over to the army. It seems that no one can stop Taikan, but even he knows that to get the Kuro-Obi, he must face and kill his fellow karate brother Giryu…
Black Belt has a good story that emphasized the spirit of Japanese Karate, and both Giryu and Taikan represent karate–and martial arts–in different ways. Taikan is an aggressive fighter, not afraid to jump into any fray, and typically kills his opponent, while Giryu only uses karate for defense only–never to attack, which he doesn’t need to as his blocking destroys the limbs of his opponent enough that he doesn’t have to kick or punch them anyway. The story does have one or two moments of coincidence that’s hard to ignore, like in one scene where Giryu is beaten by a local gang, and the boy he’s helping runs to a brothel than Taikan happens to be visiting at the time. We also don’t get to really know Giryu or Taikan beyond what they symbolize. Even with that, the story still manages to make you care about what happens to Giryu.
The cinematography by Masato Kaneko is beautiful in so many scenes, particularly the opening of the film that shows the black belts training. He is able to shoot the fight scenes from good angles, even some overhead ones, and the camera expertly captures the movements of the combatants without any quick edits. The film also features a great orchestra score that’s haunting and has an easy theme to remember. All of the main stars do a great job, considering that this is the first film for all of them. Once again, they are all real black belts.
The fight choreography is different if you are a fan of Hong Kong films, as the fights are very direct and doesn’t have a lot of dance-like choreography, but the fights are still fun to watch, especially the opening fights between the students and the soldiers, and the fight between Taikan and a Sensei from a dojo that teaches a similar karate style. The final fight between Taikan and Giryu starts out very good, but it is here they make a terrible decision: the first is to suddenly go into black and white for no reason, and the second was to have them roll around in the mud for the climax of their fight. All momentum the film has gathered to this point fizzles out as we are left with two dudes rolling around in the mud. The end of the film features Akihito Yagi going through his kata.
Black Belt is not a perfect film, but it is a good one that showcases pure karate in a way that hasn’t been seen since Sonny Chiba’s films.
(On a scale of 1-10, 10 being the best)
CHOREOGRAPHY: (8) The fights are exact and really shows the power of karate, and no fights last too long, as most opponents can only withstand a blow or two. The final fight really disappoints after such a large buildup. This seems to have been an artistic decision that backfires, in my opinion.
STUNTWORK: (7) The stuntmen did an adequate job with the punches and kicks and the choreography. The did take a few spills that looked bad.
STAR POWER: (5) For all three of the main actors this was their first film. It’s too early to see where their careers go since they are martial artists first, not actors.
FINAL GRADE: (7) Black Belt is a good karate film that has a decent story that is derailed by a so-so ending. The karate fighting, at least until the end, is top notch.