Ubisoft Presents Fantasia 2008

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Black Belt


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Director: Shunichi Nagasaki
Screenplay: Jôji Iida
Cast: Akihito Yagi, Tatsuya Naka, Yuji Suzuki, Hakuryu, Shinya Owada
Producers: Nobuhiko Sakoh
Distributor: Media Blasters


It is the early 1930s and Japan has annexed the Manchurian region of northern China. Its imperialist ambitions have been unleashed, and storm clouds are slowly forming. On the southern Japanese island of Kyushu, the techniques and traditions of karate are being passed by the master Shibahara to his three students, Taikan, Giryu and Choei. They have excelled in their physical training, and when they can achieve the same perfection in the realm of the philosophical, one of the three will wear the venerable teacher’s belt as the school’s new master. But the intrusion of the military police shatters their peace. In a confrontation, Choei is crippled, Taikan displays his ruthless temper and humble Giryu makes a tragic error in sparing the life of the police squad’s commander. This gentle gesture will have violent consequences—ones which will weigh heavily on the heart of Giryu, who abides by his master’s pacifist rules, and inflame the cold, cruel ambitions of the dangerous Taikan.

The martial arts film, from the kung fu classics of Hong Kong through the muay thai mania of Thailand and the ninja nuttiness of Japan, has for the most part been a device for escapist entertainment, favouring visceral thrills over thoughtful realism. While attempts have been made to explore the philosophical underpinnings of these arts (Bruce Lee’s final, incomplete GAME OF DEATH, most notably), they have been few enough that BLACK BELT stands out boldly in its field as an unadorned fable of wrong paths and righteousness. Karate, by virtue of its clear, simple purity of purpose, is excellently suited to a tale devoid of superhero stunts and feats of the fantastic—which isn’t say that BLACK BELT isn’t an electrifying action film. Key to its success is the fact that the three leads, while competent actors, are first and foremost certified karate masters recognized and admired in their domain.

—Rupert Bottenberg