Whether it be Karate, Kung Fu, Tae Kwon Do or Jiu-Jitsu; ALL forms of Martial Arts is a way of Self Expression. The fantastic Japanese Martial Arts melodrama, "BLACK BELT" (aka. Kuro Obi, 2007) explores the character of Karate itself and is loosely based on a true story. The film effectively balances the YIN and the YANG using the tumultuous military period in a 1930s Japan as its backdrop. It delves into the face of violent confrontation and the reflection on moral responsibility.
At an isolated dojo headed by Sensei Eiken Shibahara (Shinya Ohwada), three students: Giryu (Akihito Yagi), Taikan (Tatsuya Naka) and Choie (Yuji Suzuki) train relentless under their master's instructions. One day, when military officers threaten to ousts them from their own school, the encounter leaves Choie badly wounded with Taikan and Giryu taking up the challenge. Giryu defeats the commanding officer without throwing a single punch that led the officer to commit Seppuku.
After their master's death, the trio was hired to train military soldiers since the two both displayed impressive prowess. But fate interferes when Giryu becomes wounded by the officer's vengeful children and he becomes separated from the group. Taikan becomes influenced by the ways of the world while Giryu befriends a kindly family. Fate has played them in opposing hands and an inevitable showdown is poised to bring the traditional Giryu against the corrupted Taikan--just who is truly deserving of the KURO OBI?
"Black Belt" is a thinking man's martial arts film. The screenplay by George Ilda is a lush impressive breeding ground for melodrama and with Shinichi Nagasaki's (A Tender Place) direction taking a more somber, novelistic approach to its story; the film explores the tensions of Karate. The film is an expression of the spirit of Karate, and Director Nagasaki has opted for a more character-driven approach in place of dazzling and unrealistic martial arts displays, for which he is to be commended. I am in total awe when a director instead goes for the spirit of a concept rather than just show how cool fight sequences can look.
The cast, Tatsuya Naka and Akihito Yagi are Black Belt holders themselves and they look very natural. Now, don't mistake my earlier comment that the film is lacking in the number of fight sequences; there are quite a great number of fight scenes that display the beauty of Karate. Although the film focuses more on its characters and while the film's plot is a bit simple, the action and fights are nicely placed to keep us entertained. The fight sequences themselves are a form of character development. As I've said, martial arts is a form of self-expression and so the film capitalizes on this idea. The action is there to build the characters‘ credibility, and it feels necessary to get to the film's resolution. Unlike most martial arts films that have the story revolving on the action scenes, in this film, the action revolves in its plot.
The fight sequences by Fuyuhiko Nishi are smooth and VERY realistic. Most martial arts fans always see the choreography of the fights as a film's major selling point, and this film delivers; the fights are AWESOME to see and more impressive as it avoided the use of wires and extravagant stunt work. I have never witnessed such well-choreographed fights since I saw real live competition. The camera work stays at a distance so you can see the movement between the fighters. The fights are hard-hitting and looks quite real, they aren‘t overly long and excellently paced. These characters are supposed to be lethal weapons but no one said they were emotionless. The fighters in this film feel very human, you see their concentration in their eyes and they can feel pain. The magic is that they manage to overcome the pain.
From the film's opening act, you see the depths of Giryu, Taikan and Choei's soul. Taikan is a young man who revels in competition and violent encounter to find the art's meaning. Choei is the weakest student, but he is level-headed and truthful to himself which is why he was chosen to pick their master's successor after his death. Giryu is very traditional, Shibahara's teachings are similar to a religion to him and he would rather die than to stray from his teachings. "Karate is not to throw a punch or a kick, never attack, instead defend against an opponent's attack--parry and stave off the opponent. This way you can reach perfection" as quoted by Sensei Shibahara.
While the film is quite predictable, the direction is very solid and the script is sharp. I called this film a Martial Arts melodrama because it focuses on its characters but let me once again make it clear that action fans won't be disappointed. The absence of CGI and wirework in its fights are the film's biggest strength and simplicity is its expression. The final encounter is shot in black and white perhaps to emphasize the clash between the Yin and the Yang, or to remind us that Karate is an ancient art that existed for hundreds of years.
"KURO OBI" is a beautiful film, it is definitely a thinking man's film. The film set out to express the soul of Karate and director Nagasaki has achieved what he wanted to do by carefully measuring his approach. The film's simple plot may be its Achilles' heel but as with Karate, simplicity is often the most effective approach. After all, throwing too many punches can hurt a fighter himself, as can pitching too many ideas can hurt a film. "Black Belt" is solid, and nicely executed.
What is really worth fighting for? The goal is not for competition but the battle for enlightenment. Black can never look dirty, and a fighter must be pure. The Belt represents willpower.
"From Strength will come compassion, from compassion, strength will emerge"
Highly Recommended!! [4 ½ Out of 5 Stars]
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