Black Belt strike out on DVD

Tuesday, 09 August 2011 00:00

Set in 1930s Manchurian China, "Black Belt" concerns the fortunes of three elite karate pupils who interpret their deceased master's teachings in very different ways, and with tragic consequences. Following the invasion of China, the corrupt Japanese military police are rapidly taking over martial arts dojos across the land. When they get to the proud Shibahara dojo they encounter unexpected resistance and are forced to turn back, but not for long.

Having suffered the agony of watching their master pass away, Choei (Yuji Suzuki), Giryu (Akihito Yagi) and Taikan (Tatsuya Naka) must decide who is worthy to inherit his threadbare but symbolic black belt, effectively taking over his mantle. Choei is seriously injured and is forced to act as a mediator; pacifistic and humble Giryu ends up working on a farm and the more combative Taikan is consumed by power and pleasure. No matter how far apart they stray, destiny will surely bring them back together again.

Black Belt on DVDChinese kung fu has long enjoyed the media limelight thanks to the likes of Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Jet Li. "Black Belt" aims to put Japanese karate back on the movie map, and once you have seen the film you will wonder how you lived without it! It really is a stunning piece of work. The martial arts action is fast, brutal and realistic, the acting is excellent and it looks and sounds wonderful.

What impresses most is the fact that real, hard-core karate experts have been used to fill the major roles. I was concerned that this would mean that the action would be good but the acting would be wooden at best. I was very wrong. Both Yagi and Naka are 6th Dan masters with over fifty years of fighting and teaching experience between them, and yet they both deliver performances that really suck you into their troubled lives.

When it comes to the fighting, they are seriously good at that, too. Giryu's defensive style means that he dodges confrontation whenever he can, but when it comes down to it he is quite capable of using aggressors' momentum to send them crashing to the floor, or into the nearest wall. His blocking, defensive blows are also quite capable of breaking bones.

On the other hand, Taikan's attacking stance leads him to sweep forwards, unleashing unstoppable volleys of lightning-fast punches and kicks before his opponents have had any chance to react. Very few opponents can stand up to either man, so the promise of a final confrontation between the two is genuinely mouth-watering.

Peripheral characters help to flesh out the story, including a scummy band of loan sharks, a humorous but deadly military commander who tries to take Taikan under his wing and the humble farming family that Giryu shacks up with. At roughly 90 minutes the film zips along nicely and the various plot strands tie together neatly.

Director Shunichi Nagasaki captures the inner and physical strength of karate brilliantly, framing it in some wonderful landscapes whilst deftly using both near-silence and Naoki Sato's superbly evocative orchestral score to pull emotional strings.

The special features on the disc include a brief but fair making-of and a couple of trailers. What hits home most about the feature is that both stars physically buried themselves to faithfully portray their characters, ending up exhausted, battered and bruised but very proud of the results, and deservedly so.

“Black Belt” (2007) is out now, courtesy of MVM. The main feature has a running time of 92 minutes approx, carries a ‘15’ certificate and retails for £15.99, or less from

Last modified on Thursday, 10 May 2012 16:37

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