“Black Belt” is a thinking person’s martial-arts saga that deftly, if predictably, balances the yin and yang of violent confrontation and moral reflection against the backdrop of military co-opting of karate in 1930s Japan. Absent the visual razzle-dazzle of CGI and wirework, becoming de rigueur for such fare, measured approach by vet Nipponese genre journeyman Shunichi Nagasaki leaves pic with an honorable fight ahead of it following fest action.
At a remote dojo on Japan’s southernmost island of Kyushu, three young men study defense-based karate under the watchful eye of sensei Eiken Shibahara (Shinya Ohwada), who advises, “Never attack in karate,” serenely adding, “No kicks, either.” When the military police arrive to oust them, Giryu (Akihito Yagi) physically rebuffs stern captain Tanahara (Hakuryu). Giryu’s defensive approach is mocked by his more aggressive fellow pupil, Taikan (Tatsuya Naka), who clearly has different ideas about applying his training to real-life situations. Third student, Choei (Yuji Suzuki), is wounded by the officer and subsequently serves as the story’s Greek chorus.
Pushed over a cliff by Tanahara’s vengeful children, idealistic Giryu is nursed back to health by a caring family even as the opportunistic Taikan is hired to teach karate to the military, clearly impressed by the discipline’s potential. Entire story builds toward the prolonged showdown between the corrupted Taikan and the traditional Giryu, whose hand-to-hand battle over fields and through the mud is dramatically satisfying precisely because it doesn’t lean on f/x work.
As in many of his previous high-profile fest films encompassing action (“Heart, Beating in the Dark”), horror (“Shikoku”), relationship drama (“Some Kinda Love”) and melodrama (“A Tender Place”), Nagasaki takes a leisurely, novelistic approach to pacing and story. Seen in this light, the moralistic tensions of karate, as played out in the rich yet inevitably schematic script by George (aka Joji) Iida, rep fertile ground for drama. Three leads are nonpros who hold black belts themselves, and each is a natural. Sizable cast is peppered with enough gently comic turns to leaven pic’s seriousness.
Tech package is solid, with Fuyuhiko Nishi’s no-frills action choreography taking centerstage. Climactic grapple is lensed in black-and-white, perhaps to emphasize the ancient, timeless technique of the martial art.