I took an evening to watch the 2007 film Kuro Obi this weekend, and my reactions were immediately divided. Within the first 5 minutes, a major point of contention made itself obvious: this film has very little relevance to the real-world history of karate. The film follows a plot that rewrites karate into a historical context that simply did not exist. In doing so, it adds to the heap of disinformation that karate students have to dig through to get past the hyperbole and to the facts of karate history. But I’ll get back to that in a moment.
In a nutshell, the story plays out in early 1930’s Japan. A woodland dojo of earnest karate students and their elderly sensei is visited by the Kempetai, the dreaded military police of militarized Japan. The Kempetai are on a mission to secure more training locations for their operatives, who will be sent to Manchuoko (the name give to Manchuria after a brutal Japanese invasion). Violence ensues, one student is injured, an officer is killed, the sensei dies, and the Kempetai return later to overtake the dojo and commandeer the students. One student makes the choice to cooperate with the Kempetai for his own goals; one chooses to avoid anything to do with harming others; and the last is left to decide which one will inherit the dead sensei’s frayed old black belt.
Despite its revisionist treatment of karate history, several components of the story are historically accurate. Japan was in a period of militarist expansion during this time period. Manchuoko was an embattled Japanese colony taken by questionable means. The Japanese military and intelligence branches did request karate instruction for certain units. The Kempetai were engaged in all sorts of bad behavior in Japan and occupied countries. Martial arts techniques were revered as semi-mystical methods for dominating barbarous foreigners. But the major unspoken assumption by the film is this: karate sprang up in Japan as a distinctly Japanese martial art with no Okinawan heritage. Maybe the writers didn’t want to clutter up the film with too much background explanation, but this is a major loss of opportunity to correct several decades of Hollywood karate myth making. An opening photo montage shows some Okinawan karate notables, such as those at the 1936 “Meeting of the Masters” but I can’t help but feel that the lack of further background information serves to imbalance the obvious efforts at authenticity evident in the rest of the film. Instead of helping to restore some understanding of where karate developed and why, the story reinforces the Japanophilic notions that seek to ignore history- a history that has now been amply researched and made widely available by Higaonna, Cook, Bishop, McCarthy and others.
As far as karate movies go, this one does do a very good job of showcasing some authentic practitioners from the Goju Ryu and Shotokan schools. The aggressive Taikan is played by JKA instructor Tatsuya Naka. His passive counterpart Giryu is played by Akihito Yagi, grandson of Meitoku Yagi (founder of Meibukan Goju Ryu). The fighting is very tasteful as far as special effects go: there are none. No wire flying, no one doing the Matrix limbo, or killing people with one flip kick or fireball. There are a few “movie moments” to be sure, but overall the combat scenes did not make me cringe with embarrassment. It’s interesting to watch the contrast in fighting between Taikan and Yagi. Taikan is purely aggressive, looking to down opponents in dueling encounters that bring heavy sport kumite to mind. Yagi on the other hand refuses to strike for most of the film, and relies almost entirely on defense, accepting several injuries from attackers rather than causing them. Some of the techniques that were chosen for these scenes were taken directly from classical Goju Ryu kata. The Goju predilection for heavy hand-type palm deflections (think Sesan) is put to good use in deterring a few attackers from attacking again. While it is nice to see these kata referenced, the way in which some of the segments were applied can at times leave something to be desired as far as reality goes. During two fights in particular, the characters take the time to assume a kamae from kata, which has nothing at all to do with the fight itself. However, these moments are thankfully few and the “hero pose” shots do not dominate the film.
Because my opinion of the film is somewhat divided, I will refrain from assigning it a grading based on our usual rating system. I will however, recommend that karate enthusiasts take the opportunity to see some very talented karate practitioners from the Goju Ryu and Shotokan schools side by side, and to see a martial arts movie that is heading in the right direction. Despite my objections to the way in which karate’s origins andlater introduction to Japan is presented, it is an enjoyable film overall. If your significant other is not generally a fan of chop-socky flicks, this one may turn out to be an exception.