Saturday, July 9, 2011

REVIEW: Karate Bullfighter

けんか空手 極真拳 (Kenka karate kyokushinken)

Released: 1977

Kazuhiko Yamaguchi

Sonny Chiba
Kenji Imai
Masashi Ishibashi
Mikio Narita
Yumi Takigawa

Running time: 85 min.

Reviewed by Matthew Hardstaff

It was sort of inevitable that Sonny Chiba would play his mentor Mas Oyama. Already well known for his roles in the “Street Fighter” series, “Wandering Ginza Butterfly”, “Shorinji Kempo” and “The Executioner”, Chiba was a raging inferno of martial arts fury. The life of Masutatsu Oyama had already been popularized in the manga series “Karate Baka Ichidai” and Chiba had played Doshin So, the founder of Shorinji Kempo and one of Oyama’s karate rivals. Using the manga as its starting point, Noribumi Suzuki crafted screenplays for a trilogy of films that would trace the life of Oyama, “Kenka Karate Kyokushinken” aka “Karate Bullfighter” is the first in that trilogy.

It’s 1954 and the first national Karate championship is underway, the ban of martial arts practice recently lifted by the US occupying forces. The Japanese martial arts community demands a new champion, and Sensei Nakasone (Mikio Narita) hopes that students of his school will lead the way. Unfortunately for him Mas Oyama, dressed in a tattered gi and using an industrial sized rope as a belt enters the fray and demolishes his competition. Nakasone hopes to the tame the wild beast; Oyama’s form less style and more substance than his contemporaries. Oyama refuses Nakasone’s offer and attempts to start his own school, but finds himself ostracized from the karate community. When his only student Ariake (Jiro Chiba, Sonny Chiba’s younger brother) goes bad and starts picking street fights with other Karate students, Oyama is forced to rein in his student and ultimately do battle with Nakasone and his school, who are hell-bent on ensuring Oyama does not win the national Karate championship ever again.

Oyama created Kyokushin karate, arguably one of the most effective and influential forms of the martial art. Besides Chiba, other practioners of the art include Dolph Lundgren, Michael Jai White and UFC Welterweight Champion George St. Pierre. It sets its self apart from other forms of Karate in that it utilizes kumite, full contact sparring to allow the student to practice fighting with full, unrestrained force. This was the key to Oyama defeating all those other Karate practioners in the national tournaments, as they utilized karate as a dance, and not as a fighting art. The tales of his physical feats have become greatly exaggerated, and because the basis of this film is a manga, it’s hard to separate fact from fiction. Did the karate community seek to kill Oyama because they feared him? Probably not, although I’m sure that most certainly did seek to destroy his reputation. Did he fight the plethora of bulls he claims? Who really knows, but the Sonny Chiba versus a bull scene is utterly ridiculous, sky rocketing that moment as one of the greatest fight scenes ever, right up there with Lucio Fulci’s “Zombie” and the zombie versus shark battle. Oyama served as an advisor for the film, but like Eiji Yoshikawa’s “Musashi”, this is a very fictionalized account of one man’s life. Regardless, what is on screen is utterly fantastic. Chiba is a machine, wreaking Karate havoc like no one else. He actually does battle with a real bull. He actually karate chops Pepsi bottles in half. Director Kazuhiko Yamaguchi’s visual style is filled with just as much fury as Chiba’s on screen personality, the camera constantly weaving, twisting and turning. Using a style reminiscent of Kinji Fukusaku’s, even down to the freeze frames and oblique angles, stylistically the film is dynamite.

There is also underlying narrative similarities between Oyama and Musashi Miyamoto, the famed samurai. During Oyama’s isolated training in the mountains, he claims the only book he read was Musashi’s the “Book of the Five Rings”. And like Musashi, Oyama is a vagabond who gets embroiled in a feud with a martial arts school due to their fear of him and what he represents; pure, unbridled martial energy that abides by no simple rules. They both spent time refining their ideas in the isolation of the wilderness, both isolated and misunderstood by their respective communities, but both completely change the face of the martial arts world. Regardless of the plot elements that occupy the film (and it oddly omits that Oyama is a native Korean who changed his name from Choi Yeong-eui to Mas Oyama) at its heart it represents everything that is Oyama and is Kyokushin, and it’s a fantastic marvel to behold.

Read more by Matthew Hardstaff at his blog.


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