The year is 1932, and in this region of Manchuria the Japanese Imperial Army are making their presence felt by taking over and pressing the locals into their service. This is the state of affairs one dojo discovers when the four men - three karate students and a sensei (Yôsuke Natsuki) - find their home invaded by Japanese troops who order them to hand over their dojo to them, and follow their orders without question. Some hope of that as the sensei asks what authority they have to do so, and asks a student to fetch the official form from the Emperor himself that excuses his school from such impositions. The Captain proceeds to tear up the form and one student, the aggressive Taikan (Tatsuya Naka) prepares to fight...
Although this sounds like it will be your basic martial arts movie with that set-up, with Taikan beset by about twenty opponents who take it in turns to hit and be hit by him until he emerges triumphant, Black Belt was not that sort of film at all. Demonstrating there were different forms within the genre, this was a lot more philosophical in conduct, yes, there were scenes of violence, but director Shunichi Nagasaki had more on his mind that a simple beat 'em up with elaborate camera moves, wire work or even special effects to enhance the action. This wanted every combat sequence to be considered by the audience, to chew over the implications of each act of defence and offence.
Now, not everyone is going to get along with a style that usually lends itself to mindless violence in the hands of many other filmmakers, both accomplished and basic, being presented with such utter, straight-faced sincerity all the better to have you weigh up the implications of pretty much every punch and kick. In fact, if that sounds like a turn off, then it probably won’t play out as entertainment for you, it'll simply be too serious to enjoy; not that action movies cannot be that, after all many of them take themselves extremely seriously indeed, to the extent that they can be ripe for lampooning by the mickey-takers among the potential viewers as they spot the clichés and absurdities employed.
For those who like to laugh along with action flicks, or at the very least go "Woah!" at an impressive bit, Black Belt, or Kuro-obi as it was originally known in Japanese, was not interested in pandering to them. The plot amounted to a simple rivalry between differing schools of thought, with Taikan deciding to go on the attack with his techniques, and his fellow student Giryu (Akihito Yagi) embracing the sensei's teachings that their lessons should be used as defence exclusively, turning the attacker's force against itself and defeating them in that manner. Actually, you get the impression the tutor would have been happy to teach his charges to pose and thrust in fields alone rather than apply what he had instructed him to do to acts of violence, and Giryu toes that line with immense dedication.
Yet the thing was, he was not right to do so, and in contrast, Taikan was not correct either in his interpretation and use of his skills. It should be noted that the principal cast was made up of genuine karate experts, which gave a different timbre to the setpiece battles: many encounters were over in mere seconds, while the climactic battle was no elegant give and take but a hard slog in a muddy field where one man must be victorious, yet the feelings elicited were far from triumphant. Although not professional actors, the two antagonists did well enough under the director's guidance to convince and bring the central conflict to intellectual as well as physical life: is it better to go on the attack to combat the evil in this world, or do you allow it to come to you and overcome it through your stoic acceptance and ultimate endurance past anything they can inflict upon you? If you did not quite get an answer to that from Black Belt, it assuredly served up food for thought for those who could take it. Music by Naoki Satô (which is very good).