East Asia’s newly resurgent femme-action genre gains its youngest star — and most offbeat movie — in “High-Kick Girl!” This showcase for then-17-year-old karate wunderkind Rina Takeda plays almost like a training manual for the sport, stripped to the bone of plot and cinematic technique by martial-arts coordinator Fuyuhiko Nishi (“Black Belt,” “Shaolin Girl”) in his helming debut. Hot item at this year’s Hong Kong Filmart looks grotty on the bigscreen due to DigiBeta lensing, though Takeda’s deceptive cuteness and high-kickin’ talent should make this a must-have among genre fans in ancillary. Pic went out in Japan mid-May.
Tiny, toned Takeda has a very different screen appeal from other newcomers like China’s boyish Jiang Luxia (“Coweb”) and Thailand’s mop-haired Jeeja Yanin (“Chocolate”). In spotless white shirt and jumper, plus plaid miniskirt, Takeda is all Nipponese neatness and impassivity but springs to life with whiplash kicks and chops. Unlike Jiang and Yanin, the sexual tease quotient is high.
A wannabe black belt who takes on more accomplished opponents to prove her skill, brown-belted Kei Tsuchiya (Takeda) is first seen calmly walking into a Tokyo dojo and telling her milquetoast b.f. (D-Boys boy-bander Ryuki Takahashi), “Looks like they’re ready for the real thing.” After demolishing the entire club, she’s called on the carpet by her master, Matsumura (Tatsuya Naka), who makes her do basic kata routines to exhaustion. “Karate is the art of defense,” he says. “Never hit first.”
But when Kei gets a call from a group called the Destroyers, who hire top martial artists to beat people up for money, she can’t resist the challenge to find out how strong she is. After testing her out on a group of young femmes — played by real-life karateka Yuka Kobayashi and aikido black belt Sayaka Akimoto — the Destroyers’ head (vet Masahiro Sudo) takes her on. They’ve been looking for Matsumura for 15 years, and use Kei to get to him, leading to an epic gym battle that occupies the whole third act.
The excuse for a plot — was Matsumura so hard to find in the phone book? — is simply intended to teach Kei the true philosophy of karate, as Matsumura takes on a roomful of fighters one by one and Kei gets the bejeezus beaten out of her. Contrary to basic genre rules, Kei disappointingly ends up as a guest star in her own movie when Matsumura takes the stage.
Still, the impressive lineup of real-life martial artists, including Kyoji Amano as the Destroyers’ chief fighter, plus Ichiro Sugisawa and women’s mixed martial-arts star Hisae Watanabe, holds attention. Almost every fight sequence is repeated in slow-motion, giving the whole movie a vid-manual feel.