Well, at least it wasn’t as bad as Shaolin Girl...
Fuyuhiko Nishi has spent a good deal of his career doing everything in his power to push the martial arts action film genre in Japan, something which has been largely bereft of new talent and interest since the early 1980s. From personally introducing Thai stars Tony Jaa and Jeeja Yanin to Japanese audiences via his industry contacts to creating his own films from scratch, it’s pretty obvious the man has a passion for realistic, hard-hitting theatrical combat. Unfortunately, passion and dedication don’t always lead to a good product, and his 2009 film High Kick Girl! is yet another example of that fact.
The film was relentlessly marketed as the coming out party for “karate idol” Rina Takeda, and somewhat appropriately, she’s pretty much the only redeeming aspect of it. Takeda, 17 at the time of filming, is the real deal; this was not a case of some random gravure idol being thrown into an action movie with the help of clever editing and special effects. She’s a legit black belt in Ryukyu Shorin-ryu Karate and has been training since she first decided to follow in her father’s footsteps at the age of 10. But more importantly for her viability as an action star, her slender frame makes all her movements seem incredibly graceful on film and she reportedly possesses a Jeeja-like threshold for the pain involved in repeating high-impact stunts over and over again.
Unfortunately, practically all of Takeda’s most impressive moments were shown in the theatrical trailer and training clips months before the film was even released. For the most part, former karate champ and 6th Dan Japan Karate Association instructor Tatsuya Naka takes the lead in action scenes as her defense-preaching, but punishment-dealing sensei, Matsumura.
The story borders on being insultingly simplistic. Takeda’s character, Kei Tsuchiya, is a hot shot karate prodigy who can’t seem to impress Master Matsumura enough to graduate from her brown belt even though she possesses the natural ability to whoop up on just about anyone else in her dojo. To prove herself, she begins “hunting” black belts, at one point taking out an entire dojo of grown men at once as she taunts them and makes them flinch with her playful dekes. Of course Matsumura does not approve of his student’s actions, and forces her to repeat the oh-so-unexciting Kata over and over a la The Karate Kid, Part III.
Frustrated, Tsuchiya ups the ante by agreeing to join a mysterious group of hired bullies called “The Destroyers” who recently called her out of the blue. Her “tryout” offers up another excuse to show off her skills as she faces off against a group of 2nd-tier Destroyers consisting of several young stunt actors and AKB48 member Sayaka Akimoto, herself a black belt in Aikido. This culminates with a brief-yet-impressive kick-trading standoff with fellow real-life karate idol Yuka Kobayashi. At this point, it’s revealed that her recruitment was simply a trap set by the Destroyers in order to get revenge against Matsumura, who humiliated the group 15 years earlier while he was still a hot-headed young security guard. Of course, the honorable karate master walks right into the trap knowing full well what’s in store for him, and, predictably, watching him fight finally teaches Tsuchiya what he was trying to convey to her all along.
While that may all seem pretty cool on paper and perfectly acceptable for a movie which unabashedly prides itself on being about a girl who kicks high, it’s actually presented at a snail’s pace. Slow motion is used gratuitously in a futile attempt to inject drama into scenes that have none, and practically every single action sequence is replayed in slow-mo immediately after the full-speed viewing, similar to Prachya Pinkaew’s Ong-Bak. I realize some people may appreciate this kind of filmmaking, but it sure seemed a bit over-the-top for the kinds of things being replayed. While the utter lack of cuts during these intricate action sequences is undoubtedly impressive, the repeat viewing often backfires and allows the viewer to dwell on small mistakes instead of the overall wow-factor. Stuff like that would surely be easier to appreciate as a bonus feature on a DVD release instead of being forced into watching everything twice. If these doubled up scenes were edited out, the film would be much shorter and probably a lot more tolerable overall. As it stands, I see little reason to bother checking this one out unless you go into it knowing that it’s more of an impressively choreographed karate demo than an actual movie. That being said, Takeda proves herself to be one to watch in the world of martial arts entertainment. Here’s hoping she gets the chance to star in something worthy of her skill set in the near future, whether it’s in Japan or somewhere more appreciative of the genre.