High Kick Girl

If there is any problem with High Kick Girl, a low-budget karate fest from Japan, it’s that it’s a terrible movie. If you can overlook that one flaw, then High Kick Girl is pretty decent. However, even if you can’t get over the fact that this movie is a study in incompetence due to inexperience, it’s still possible to wring from the mess a healthy degree of respect for what they were trying to do. Alas, if only good intentions always resulted in good movies. The dream of High Kick Girl was to take the Japanese martial arts movie back from the fumbling hands of CGI-heavy fantasy films and boob-heavy sexploitation stinkers full of AV idols flopping about and calling it karate, and return the martial arts film to the stewardship of people who actually care about it. And make no mistake — I thoroughly believe that everyone involved with High Kick Girl genuinely cares about martial arts and making good martial arts movies. They just aren’t capable of doing so, at least not yet.

The good news is that the cabal of passionate fans and martial artists who assembled High Kick Girl chose teenage martial arts tournament sensation Rina Takeda as the heir apparent to the throne of Etsuko Shiomi. Rina’s own story is a little bit better than the one that the writers came up with for her film debut. She grew up in a karate family, with a father who was a regular on the tournament circuit. As a girl of ten, she witnessed him lose a match, and in the haze of youthful passion, vowed that she would learn martial arts in order to avenge his defeat. As far as I can tell, it’s not like her dad’s opponent “swept the leg” or beat her pop by using hidden knives or super extend-o power arms, but whatever. When you’re a kid, you can make such proclamations in earnest. She made good on her vow, eventually achieving a black belt in Ryukyu Shorin-ryu Karate. While she was doing that, she was also pursuing a secondary ambition of becoming a pop idol. She tried out for but did not win membership in the terrifying Logan’s Run-esque eugenics experiment known a Morning Misume. But working the cattle call circuit got her noticed by production company Stardust Promotion, who put her on the payroll and started looking around for the right vehicle for the young martial artist.

Meanwhile, somewhere within the depths of the battered Japanese film industry, was a group of people who had decided to resurrect the moribund karate film genre. If you pay any attention at all to the Japanese film industry, you know that, except for a few solid dramas or comedies every year, the industry is pretty much a horrifying, rotten corpse that makes Hong Kong’s film industry collapse seem like a belle epoque. Upon the collapse of the film industry, Japanese film makers retreated into the ranks of the direct to DVD market, working with smaller and smaller budgets and thinner and thinner premises. The once healthy (though often sloppily made, even at their height) karate genre almost totally bit the dust. Once the likes of Hiroyuki Sanada, Sonny Chiba, and Sue Shiomi moved on, no one stepped up to fill the void. As with what happened in Hong Kong, film makers would occasionally try to compensate by casting pop idols with no martial arts training, then tossing them about via CGI and camera trickery.

The results were usually grim, though some of the movies came out all right. But there’s not much in them for martial arts movie purists. The Japanese martial arts movie soon passed into the hands of sexploitation film makers, who cast softcore (and sometimes hardcore) starlets as ninjas and samurai and karatekas, only without the budget or technical ability to compensate for their lack of martial prowess with CGI and wires. Instead, they assumed that no one checked out Zombies vs. Strippers or Yo-Yo Girl Sexy Cop for the slick martial arts choreography. While that left Japanese cult film fans with a lot of really dumb, boring tits-n-gore schlockfests, it didn’t leave much for fans of martial arts movies.

And it’s not like our standards are that high. Karate films were never really all that great. Compared to the fluid grace and kinetic insanity of their contemporaries in Hong Kong kungfu cinema, even the best of Japan’s karate movies don’t measure up. Karate doesn’t lend itself to the same sort of flowing, nonstop action you can get from kungfu. But there were still plenty of pretty good karate movies, and Sonny Chiba and the Japan Action Club he founded to train and hire out actors, stuntmen, and choreographers helped hone the skills of a lot of charismatic actors. Instead of trying to mimic what was being done in Hong Kong, Chiba decided to forge a cinematic style all his own, focusing on explosive bursts of power and brutality. His on-screen karate style was ugly, thuggish, and just plain scary, with Chiba himself grunting and wheezing and growling and wearing clashing plaids. But it worked. Sure, it wasn’t the mind-blowing precision of the Hong Kong product. But there was something animalistic and appealing about it. But once the 1980s rolled around, the karate film pretty much died.

So lets skip ahead a bit to 2003. The Chinese kungfu movie is dead. The Japanese karate movie is dead. But down in Thailand, this crazy lad named Tony Jaa is making martial arts movies that boast the gusto, insane energy, wild stunts, and special effects free bad-assery of Hong Kong action films at their finest, with a dash of the bone-crunching brutishness of Sonny Chiba’s approach. It was like Jackie Chan from 1985 downed a bunch of Thai Red Bull and decided his stunts and fight scenes had been too conservative and deliberately paced. Jaa’s Ong Bak became an international sensation. Slowly, people who wanted to make similar style martial arts films, heavy on the talent and choreography, light on tricks and special effects, started to crawl out of the hiding places into which they’d been driven, thinking that maybe Tony Jaa had ushered in the martial arts movie Renaissance.

Unfortunately, Tony Jaa followed up his initial success by going completely batshit insane and moving into a hut with Dave Chappelle… or something like that. The seeds he’d sown, however, were starting to grow. While Jaa was off in the jungle drinking dead cobra whiskey and summoning ghosts, or whatever it was they claimed he was doing when he vanished, Thailand effortlessly shifted international attention off of him and onto young Jeeja Yanin, also known by the name “what if Tony Jaa was a woman.” In Hong Kong, film makers started poking around the massive pool of martial arts talent now available to them in mainland China and came up with several promising new prospects, while also reviving the careers of some of the old school for whom no replacements had existed in the first decade of the new millennium. In Japan, director Shunichi Nagasaki decided it was time for the karate movie to reassert itself as well.

Thus was born the movie Kuro-obi (aka Black Belt), a back-to-basics martial arts action film that strove to return the Japanese karate movie to the people who knew and loved karate. A year later, director Katsuyuki Motohiro made Shaolin Girl, which styled itself a sequel to Stephen Chow’s wildly popular Shaolin Soccer (Chow even executive produced, though I hear the results are decidedly mixed, at best, and the film uses lots of CGI). Both Kuro-obi and Shaolin Girl have the benefit of looking like actual movies, with actual production values. On the heels of this timid but palpable re-emergence of the Japanese martial arts film, first-time director Nishi Fuyuhiko got to take Rina Takeda, some camera equipment, and a big ol’ pile of authentic martial artists down to the local school to make the substantially lower budget looking High Kick Girl. Unfortunately, what Nishi didn’t have was any real skill as a director.

Rina plays Kei Tsuchiya, a high school student who spends most of her time wandering from back alley to back alley, karate dojo to karate dojo, looking for ass to kick and black belts to add to her trophy wall. Despite being able to beat the crap out of all sorts of people, she herself is only a brown belt, owing to the fact that she can’t successfully complete the katas that will enable her to pass her black belt test. As one might guess from the movie’s title, brutal high kicks to the head are her specialty. Where as the sexploitation industry would take the concept of a schoolgirl specializing in high kicks and use it for the most obvious purpose, Nishi Fuyuhiko avoids the panty shots and fan service and concentrates on showing us in painstaking detail that Rina Takeda is the real thing, that the fighters are actually making contact with one another, and that there are no wires of computer graphics standing in for real karate skills.

While this is good in theory, Nishi’s idea of “painstaking detail” means showing every move, then showing it again, then maybe showing it a third time in slow motion. Tony Jaa likes to replay his more outrageous stunts, and Jackie Chan also figured that if he was going to slide down a pole while being shocked by countless exploding Christmas lights, he might as well replay it a couple times. Of course Rudy Ray Moore famously dove buck naked down a shrub covered hill and felt, rightfully so, that it deserved an instant replay lest some of you mother fuckers doubt that he really did that good shit. But all of these guys used the technique sparingly, as exclamation points to something particularly worthy of having you mutter, “Holy shit.” High Kick Girl employs the instant replay after almost every move. Yes, that means we get to see multiple times how hard Rina kicked that guy in the head, but it also kills the flow of the fight scenes, chops them up into stuttering little bits, and makes them impossible to appreciate. If you could edit out the replays and just let the fights flow from beginning to end, we’d be in much better territory, because Rina and everyone involved in this movie is really good, and most of the fight scenes would be great if they didn’t stop every five seconds to show you what you just saw. You end up with a bunch of really nice looking moves that are never successfully strung together into a cohesive fight scene.

Kei’s fight-picking eventually brings her to the attention of a gang of mercenary killers known as The Destroyers, and she seems initially keen on joining them despite the fact that they all dress like they just saw The Matrix for the first time. When it’s revealed that they’re only using her to get to her sensei, she… well, she leads them right to the guy, which wasn’t terribly smart of her. Rina then disappears for a bit of the movie, and the action shifts focus to Tatsuya Naka (who also appeared in Black Belt) as her sensei. Even more so than Rina Takeda, Tatsuya Naka is a bona fide karate bad ass, but despite years of real world experience, he’s still a neophyte when it comes to fighting for the camera, and his fights are the same mix of impressive mixed with weird pacing, marred by the tendency to do the instant replay for every move. He, along with everyone involved in the movie, made the cardinal error of trying to make their fights as realistic as possible. If you’ve ever seen a real fight, you know they aren’t all that fun to watch. That’s why movies stage more elaborate affairs, and why the fake stuff looks more real. It’s like the old story about the making of… was it The Ten Commandments? They shot the film on location in the Holy Land for the utmost sense of realism, but when the dailies started coming in, the director nd producer picked up the entire cast and crew and moved shooting to the American southwest. Why? Because, on film, the Holy Land didn’t look enough like the Holy Land. Such is the case with fighting — what works in real life doesn’t always work on screen.

When master and student team up for the prolonged finale to decimate The Destroyers, High Kick Girl comes so, so close to getting it right. They get enough right to make the fight worth watching, though in a way, the stuff this film does right only make its ultimate failure sting that much more. For me, as for many, martial arts films live and die by their fight scenes. We can forgive everything else — bad writing, bad editing, stolen Kitaro music, cheap looking silver wigs, the conceit that Polly Shang-Kwan Ling Feng in a mini-skirt can be passed off as a man. We will forgive just about anything if the movie delivers spectacular fight scenes. In terms of writing and acting, for instance, the Angels movies from Hong Kong are unwatchable, but as soon as Moon Lee and Yukari Oshima start putting foot to ass, all is forgiven. High Kick Girl just doesn’t get it right, though even when it’s doing it wrong, there’s a lot to admire. The film throws a lot of action at the viewer, and Rina’s fight with a dojo full of students, and later with The Destroyers junior league karate schoolgirls, showcase a lot of good hits and nice moves. Everyone has amazing karate skills, and where the movie truly fails is in not being able to properly choreograph and photograph the potential present in each of the performers. The end result looks less like a martial arts movie and more like a decently done amateur film, or a really impressive demo reel for a bunch of stunt people who deserve lots of work.

These fights are also a good example of how important an overzealous foley artist is to creating an engaging fight scene. The whoosh-and-thundercrack sound effects of kungfu films are ridiculous, yes, but they also suck you in and trick you into thinking even half-assed kicks and punches are landing with the solid force of Thor’s hammer. High Kick Girl, by way of contrast, features people hitting and kicking each other really hard, but the limp pit-pat sound effects, while more closely resembling what a punch sounds like in real life, fake the brain out and make everything seem slow and weak. Crank up that bass! Using “realistic fight sounds” is one of those well-meaning “back to basics” theories like using natural lighting for night scenes — it sounds noble in theory, but it can ruin a film.

Similarly, the movie is almost totally devoid of music. Rather than leaving you free to concentrate on the purity of the martial arts on display, all it does is make you uncomfortably aware of the fact that there isn’t any music. As a result, all of the fights feel like your watching a karate class sparring session instead of a karate movie. This isn’t helped byt he fact that the villains seem to use a high school gym as a secret lair. I’m not saying you need to fire up the Sonny Chiba 1970s funk, but… no actually, you should fire up the Sonny Chiba 1970s funk. I feel that way about pretty much every movie, though. Those Twilight movies would probably be way better if, while the leads were angstin’ it up about romance, the brass and wah-wah started up and Sonny Chiba came struttin’ in wearing a garish plaid suit and pimp hat. You don’t have to maintain that sort of awesomeness for the whole movie. Just a few seconds. Go ahead and ask yourself: if you hate the Twilight movies, but you heard that in the middle of some sullen little scene, Sonny Chiba went walking across the screen while 70s jazz-funk blared on the soundtrack, you’d watch a Twilight movie, wouldn’t you?

It’s inevitable, at least for me, that Rina Takeda be compared to Japan’s undisputed queen of the karate movie, Etsuko Shiomi. She lacks Sue’s easy charm and charisma, but I think if Rina had a proper mentor in how to fight for the movies, and a proper director and choreographer, it wouldn’t be outside the realm of expectation that we’d eventually come to recognize her as one of the best. Sadly, I don’t know if Japan has it in them to give Rina the pieces of the puzzles she needs to make something better than High Kick Girl. Despite efforts here and there, it’s likely that karate movies will remain within the purview of the low budget film makers for some time. Without seasoned vets to train the new school in how to make a movie, it’s going to be a bumpy, but interesting, ride as the kids figure it out for themselves through trial and error. With luck, Nishi and his crew learned from the sundry mistakes they made in High Kick Girl and will give it another go. The next movie will probably also be full of mistakes, but they’ll learn from that too. In the meantime, what I’d really love is to see Rina cross over the way Yukari Oshima did in the early 90s. Rina Takeda combined with Hong Kong choreography? Hell yes. Rina Takeda going fist to foot with Jiang Lu-Xia? Yes, please.

The end result is that High Kick Girl is a shoddily made movie bursting with good intentions and obvious enthusiasm. It’s the sort of movie it genuinely pains me to write a bad review of. Right now, Rina Takeda, Tatsuya Naka, and High Kick Girl remain promising, even if the movie is a mess. I admire everyone involved for their desire to revive and revise the karate film. As soon as they learn how to fight on screen as well as they do in real life, we’re going to have ourselves one hell of a good movie. I want to like High Kick Girl. I want so bad to like it. And I certainly see the good in it and feel like fight film fans should check it out despite the missteps it takes. Everyone involved with this movie is giving it their all, taking ridiculous amounts of punishment, and obviously believes in the mission of reclaiming the karate film from the gutter. And they’re all really good at karate.

Just not at karate movies.

Release Year: 2009 | Country: Japan | Starring: Rina Takeda, Tatsuya Naka, Sayaka Akimoto, Kyoji Amano, Mayu Gamou, Ryoko Gomi, Yasushi Higuchi, Kumi Imura, Yu Kamio, Yuka Kobayashi, Rumi Maeda, Yu Misato, Tatsuya Mori, Misako, Fuyuhiko Nishi | Screenplay: Yoshikatsu Kimura, Fuyuhiko Nishi | Director: Fuyuhiko Nishi | Cinematographer: Nobuyuki Matsui | Music: Tomoo Misato | Producer: Fuyuhiko Nishi, Ken Nakanishi