Director: Kurando Mitsutake
Writer: Kurando Mitsutake
Cast: Hayate, David Sakurai, Asami, Katarina Leigh Waters, Mana Sakura, Kirk Geiger, Noriaki Kamata, Kirk Geiger, Tomm Voss, Jeffrey James Lippold
Running Time: 85 min
By Paul Bramhall
Japanese action cinema has a history of making movies that act as a showcase for the karate skills of the stars that headline them, from Ken Kazama in Karate from Shaolin Temple back in 1976, to Rina Takeda in 2009’s High Kick Girl. Unfortunately, outside the likes of Yasuaki Kurata, and Japan Action Club alumni Sonny Chiba, Estsuko Shihomi, and Hiroyuki Sanada, few action stars from Japan have really shown a level of longevity compared with their Hong Kong counterparts. In part, this can be put down to the karate movie rarely being seen as something other than exploitation fare. While there have been a handful of more serious attempts in recent years (Shunichi Nagasaki’s Black Belt springs to mind), for many, karate movies will call to mind images of Sonny Chiba ripping some hapless fools balls off, or chopping someone in the head so hard their eye balls pop out.
At the end of the day, perhaps this isn’t such a bad thing, many of the 70’s karate movies that starred the likes of Chiba and Shihomi are fondly remembered for their hyper-violent nature and trashy approach to storytelling. Indeed it’s fair to say that one never has to look too far, to find someone willing to say they wish Japan would make a karate movie like they used to. Well, for those that miss those rib ripping, skull crushing, flesh flashing days of old, director Kurando Mitsutake is here to make your wish come true, and in the grand tradition of old, he’s doing so via showcasing the skills of a new karate talent.
Originally from Tokyo, Mitsutake graduated from the California Institute of Arts, and remains partly based in Los Angeles. After debuting in 2007 with Monster’s Don’t Get to Cry, the first signs of his style started to show in 2009’s sushi-western Samurai Avenger: The Blind Wolf, in which he also took on the lead role. However his real breakthrough came with 2014’s Gun Woman, which quickly gained a reputation thanks to featuring splatter genre stalwart and former pink actress Asami completely naked for most of the movies 2nd half. Gun Woman went on to win the Special Jury Prize at the 24th Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival, and it was at this same festival that the idea for Karate Kill was birthed.
The man who would go on to become Karate Kill’s executive producer, Naoki Kubo, was also at the festival, and came with some cast members from the first movie he produced, the Rina Takeda featuring Danger Dolls. One of the lackeys from the movie, played by a gentleman simply called Hayate, was included in the entourage, however thanks to a mix of Yubari being a small town, and Hayate leaving it late to book accommodation, it looked to be impossible to find a place to stay. In the end, Kubo offered for Hayate to crash on his rooms couch, and at the time, Hayate had no idea how much of a martial arts enthusiast Kubo was, and Kubo has no idea that Hayate was a practitioner of karate of over 20 years.
Of course the pair got talking, and when Kubo asked Hayate to show him some moves, the producer was blown away, immediately declaring that he needed to make a movie with him as the star. As fate would have it, Kubo would also attend a screening of Gun Woman, and after being equally impressed by its insane finale, insisted that whoever directed it would be the perfect candidate to introduce Hayate’s lethal karate skills to the world. Hence, Karate Kill was born. So you have one karate practitioner with no acting experience and no passport, agreeing to star in a movie that’s going to be mostly filmed in the U.S., with a director at the helm who sites movies like Cannibal Holocaust and Lucio Fulci as influences. What can go wrong?
Thankfully, not a whole lot does, with Karate Kill indeed invoking the look and feel of those trashy karate exploitationers of the 70’s. The story is wafer thin – Hayate works a number of part-time jobs to support his sister studying in the U.S., since their parents died when they were still kids. However when she stops making contact for an extended period of time, he packs his bags and heads stateside to see what the deal is. It turns out she’d taken on work at a hostess bar to help make ends meet, and while there was abducted by a cult called Capital Messiah who stream snuff videos on the net, brainwashing their victims to pledge allegiance. With the help of a former abductee who managed to escape, played by Asami, the pair plan to both rescue Hayate’s sister, and wipe out the cult for good. Clocking in at a lean and mean 85 minutes, beyond the above description there’s little time for anything else.
Literally opening with Asami firing a gun point blank at the camera, swiftly followed by a close-up of a strippers butt, Mitsutake certainly knows how to get a viewer’s attention, and we’re not even 30 seconds in at this point. The brisk pacing of Karate Kill is definitely one of its biggest strengths, with no fat on the bone here whatsoever. Unlike similar movies that see Asian action stars cast in a U.S. set story, such as Jet Li in The Master or Jackie Chan in Rumble in the Bronx, Karate Kill foregoes any fish-out-of-water shenanigans, and keeps Hayate as a walking killing machine throughout. He’s a man of few words, so regardless of if you speak English or Japanese, if someone is involved with his sisters abduction they’re likely to either receive a fist to the throat, or have a body part ripped off bare handed.
The action was a collaboration between both Hayate himself in the role of karate and parkour coordinator (yes, he’s also a parkour practitioner, which he puts to good use), and action director Keiya Tabuchi, who previously worked with Mitsutake on Gun Woman. The lead and action director worked together for 3 months prior to filming, in order for Tabuchi to assist Hayate in making his rather unique style of karate look good onscreen, and it was certainly time well spent. An action highlight comes in the form of Hayate’s initial visit to the hostess bar his sister used to work at, which sees him taking on multiple attackers, and in one part has the camera perform a full 360 degree rotation which is both dizzying and effectively done.
Karate Kill also takes a chance on addressing the question of how a martial arts practitioner should deal with the issue of guns, that takes the form of an entertaining Remo Williams-esque training sequence, in which he practices with Asami to dodge bullets. It is of course completely outside the realms of reality, however in the context of the schlocky world Karate Kill takes place in, it’s perfectly believable. On the subject of schlocky, the costumes and make-up of the cult members give them the appearance of what can best be described as post-apocalyptic ISIS members. The three core members of the group, played by Kirk Geiger, Tomm Voss, and former WWE star Katarina Leigh Waters, are hilariously over the top, and their antics are certainly not for the easily offended. Best of all is the fact that Hayate and Leigh Waters even have a knock down drag out fight, one which ends on a suitably gory note.
The horror leanings of Mitsutake are clear to see, and are incorporated well into the action found in Karate Kill, with some of the hyper violence on display reminding me of Johnny Yong Bosch’s performance in Broken Path. While a lot of the blood splatter is done via passable CGI, there’s also plenty of practical effects work on display, with mangled hands and eye gouging presented in a way guaranteed to make the audience squirm. Mitsutake’s script is also laced with plenty of laugh out loud dark humour and scenarios, which pop up with enough regularity to remind us that nothing we’re seeing should be taken too seriously. From Hayate’s first opponent being introduced with his face firmly lodged in a voluptuous nun’s naked posterior, to Geiger incorrectly believing Tom Yum Goong to be a style of martial arts.
All in all Karate Kill does exactly what it says on the tin. An unashamed barrage of karate punches, gore, and nudity, those looking for a movie which presents philosophical musings on the meaning of martial arts, or a clean cut tale of heroics, had best look elsewhere. Hayate makes a worthy first impression as a lead, conveying an early Steven Seagal style level of bad assery, and one which will hopefully be capitalised on in future productions. Mitsutake delivers his best looking movie so far, with none of the cheap aesthetics of his previous productions in sight, and a firm grasp of how a movie like this should be paced. If Japan ever decides to reboot Takuma “Terry” Tsurugi, then Mitsutake and Hayate would be the perfect pair to do so.
Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 7.5/10