Attempts to revive and revise the Japanese karate movie started in 2007, with this tale set in the early 1900s of guys kicking each other in the face really hard. Japanese films are mostly terrible these days, and Japanese martial arts films have almost ceased to exist, with there being little more to the genre anymore than CGI movies or no-budget T&A stinkers starring busty AV idols as ninjas. So a bunch of karate guys woke up one day and thought to themselves, “you know, maybe we should be the guys making karate movies.” While their efforts remain small scale enough so that we can’t trumpet them as a revolution or the rebirth of the Japan Action Club, the results are still promising. Not always good, but promising.

The first fruit of this effort that I saw was a low budget, amateurishly made movie called High Kick Girl. High Kick Girl was a cheap movie made by very enthusiastic, very untalented film makers. Kuro-obi is the more appropriate first shot of the new karate movie movement. It looks to have had a real budget, or at least had people involved who knew how to successfully mask a low budget. It has the look of an actual profession film, made by people who knew what they were doing rather than by a group of talented karate fighters and fans who were figuring the technical aspects of film making out as they made their first movie. But more important than any of that, Kuro-Obi is a really good martial arts film, in the truest sense of the genre.

I won’t pretend that I am overly obsessed with the concept, but somewhere in the back of my mind, I make a distinction between martial arts movies and movies with martial arts in them. Martial arts movies, by that somewhat stricter definition I rarely employ, have to do more than just have kungfu fight scenes in them. They have to involve, in some way, the driving philosophy of the martial art the film chooses to depict. Most movies in the generally referred to “martial arts” genre could have the martial arts replaced with any other sort of fighting and still be basically the same movie, though probably with considerably less awesome fight scenes. But a true martial arts movie would cease to exist if you extracted the martial arts form out of it, because the story itself is so woven into the philosophy behind the form. Legendary Weapons of China, for instance, or 36th Chamber of Shaolin — these movies have to be about kungfu. You could not replace the fighting style. If you took it away, or if you took away the philosophy, you would not have a movie.

Kuro-Obi is a similar movie for karate. The plot is simple and familiar: a dying master has three students whom he wills ownership of the dojo to and implores to follow the school’s strict, honorable philosophy. Giryu (Akihito Yagi, High Kick Girl) takes the message to heart. Taikan (Tatsuya Naka, also in High Kick Girl and looking very Hiroyuki Sananda in this film) has always been a seething cauldron of ambition under his placid facade. The third student (Yuji Suzuki) is sort of the lesser student, but serves as the conscience of the trio. When the master dies, and pushy soldiers come to take over the dojo (sort of the pre-World War II equivalent of developers who want to knock down the community center to make room for a shopping mall), Giryu ends up living with an oppressed peasant family while Taikan takes a job training the soldiers.

As fate would have it, the general also happens to be looking to expand his power by opening a lucrative chain of brothels, and his main pimp happens to have his eyes on the daughter in the family with which Giryu has taken up residence. Unfortunately for the family, Giryu is steadfastly committed to his master’s decree that karate should never be used for offense, and that the only way to ever truly attain mastery is to restrict yourself from punching or kicking, and only use defensive moves. This means that when a gang of thugs in really obnoxious kimonos shows up to take the girl away, Giryu does that thing where he just sort of stands there, clenching his fist and letting it happen. When her little brother lays on the guilt trip though, Giryu finally decides to mount a rescue attempt. Giryu quickly learns that when storming the stronghold of a bunch of evil gangsters, bringing along a little kid is a pretty dumb idea.

Luckily, Taikan is hanging out nearby, and though he’s in league with the pimpy general and has decided he prefers the life of beautiful women and sake over the “wooden floor austerity” style of life he previously lead, he has no particular love for the thugs. His sole purpose, it turns out, for enlisting with the general was so that he could fight every damn karateka in the country, hoping to finally find one that will give him the fight of his life. Needless to say, Giryu is that eventual opponent.

Kuro-obi manages to avoid most of the mistakes that ultimately sunk High Kick Girl, and since the two movies have pretty much the same cast, this is obviously thanks to the far more experienced crew that was involved with Kuro-Obi. The fights are much better staged, while still maintaining that devastating sense of realistic power and “oh shit, he really kicked that guy hard.” The acting and directing both are substantially more accomplished as well. Akihito Yagi is playing the silent, contemplative type, though it comes across a little more as dull and confused. All of the bad guys get to overact and ham it up as is appropriate for such roles.

Tatsuya Naka turns in a genuinely good performance as the more complex and relatable (for me, anyway, as a man prone to sin) students. His motivations and actions are perfectly understandable, and he manages to keep Taikan from becoming unlikable or particularly villainous while still establishing that he is clearly the bad guy in the match-up — though very much a bad guy any of us could become quite easily, provided we were also one of the two best karate fighters in all of Japan.

The script has its ups and downs, though considerably more ups than downs. Screenwriter Joji Iida is not a man whose work has garnered much praise from me in the past, as he was writer-director on two films I well and truly hate — Dragon Head and Rasen. Some of his hallmarks are still here — a slow pace, a hero who tends toward the mopey when he should be doing something — but this time out, he succeeds more than he fails, and the only real “complaints” I have about the script are that the plot itself is generic (and that’s not something that, in all honesty, bothers me — a generic story well executed is perfectly fine with me), and the end seems to forget to tie up the movie. We know the final fight will be between Taikan and Giryu, and we know it will be about the two of them and the philosophy of karate, rather than about any of the oppressed farmers, corrupt generals, or brothels that have populated the story. But that still leaves a group of country folk and escaped women standing face to face with a battalion of armed, corrupt soldiers and pimps. I guess everything worked out, and even the villains were inspired by the purity and brutality of the karate fight between Taikan and Giryu and thus changed their ways? I don’t know, and the script doesn’t bother to clue us in.

But then, the story is merely a sparse structure to propel the action. Most of what’s written is more concerned with exploring philosophy, and I’m a nerd for such things, so overall, I was pretty happy with Joji Iida’s work. Not happy enough to forgive him Rasen, mind you, but the now, at least, the healing can begin. Oh, and there’s also the karate — lots of it too, in a good mix of short and long fight scenes. When I wrote a longer review of High Kick Girl, I said that authentic martial artists often make terrible film martial artists, but most of that depends entirely on who’s behind the camera and who’s doing the choreography. Since both Kuro-Obi and High Kick Girl employed members of the Japan Karate Association, they share a huge number of cast members — but the difference between the fights in each movie is vast.

Kuro-Obi knows how to stage a martial arts throwdown that looks completely authentic but also plays well and looks exciting on screen. It established a proper rhythm and flow and lets the action play out, rather than breaking it up with lots of replays and flashbacks of what you just saw. This is probably thanks in large part to Akihiro Noguchi, the action coordinator for this movie and a man who brought with him a lot of experience in staging fight scenes. Since Kuro-Obi is, as I said way back there at the beginning, a movie that absolutely needs karate in it to make any sense, it was important that it make the fight scenes work. And it does, resulting in a movie that, while imperfect (as all movies are), was hugely entertaining and, outside of the samurai genre, probably the best Japanese martial arts film that has been made in decades.

Release Year: 2007 | Country: Japan | Starring: Akihito Yagi, Tatsuya Naka, Yuji Suzuki, Kenji Anan, Arashi Fukasawa, Atsushi Hida, Yu Kamio, Takayasu Komiya, Tatsuya Mori, Atsuko Nakamura, Yosuke Natsuki, Shin’ya Owada, Masahiro Sudo, Taro Suwa | Screenplay: Joji Iida | Director: Shunichi Nagasaki | Cinematography: Masato Kaneko | Music: Naoki Sato | Producer: Katsuhiro Ogawa