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Rina Takeda: The Next Action Heroine?
Last month, we saw MMA star Gina Carano hit the big-screen in Haywire, but she's not the first genuine female martial-artist to have started a movie career. Most obviously, Cynthia Rothtock was a five-time World Karate Champion in forms and weapons, and has a number of black belts in various disciplines. Similarly, Jeeja Yanin was a third-Dan black belt in Taekwondo, before hitting the silver screen in Chocolat. But here, we'll be looking at the name that has recently emerged out of Japan, Rina Takeda, holder of a black belt in Ryukyu Shorin-ryu Karate.
Born in 1991, Takeda was reportedly inspired to take up the martial-art at the age of ten, when she saw her father get knocked out of a karate tournament, and was determined to avenge his defeat. [If you've seen the "plot" - quotes used advisely - of some of her films, this makes a great deal of sense...] In 2005, she auditioned to become a member in J-pop group Morning Musume, and to date, has appeared in three films, as well as a recurring role on the Japanese comedy-superhero series, The Ancient Dogoo Girls. There's a certain sense that her talents have not yet been matched by the material provided, but everyone has to start somewhere. Just ask Angelina Jolie, whose career started with Cyborg 2
Dir: Fuyuhiko Nishi
Star: Rina Takeda, Tatsuya Naka, and a host of faceless minions
Brief: Less a "film" than "a collection of fight scenes spliced together, interspersed with cut scenes from a Mortal Kombat knock-off".
The entertainment value you get from this may depend on your expectations. It undoubtedly works best as a party-tape, show-casing the "no wires, CGI or stunt doubles" approach, but I have to beg to differ with some of the critical savaging it has received. Even on our forums, it divided opinions, with some posters calling it "moronic and offensive" and "complete TRASH". While I can see its weaknesses, and it's no classic, at least in the first half, it does deliver pretty much everything you'd expect in the way of teenage ass-kickery.
The plot - such as it is, and I wonder what they did with the rest of the postage-stamp - is as follows. Kei Tsuchiya (Takeda) is a student under master Matsumura (Naka), but fed up with training, goes out to "hunt black belts." This brings her to the attentions of the Destroyers, a gang of mercenary martial-artists called the Destroyers, extend an invitation to her to join them. Turns out it's a trap, designed to lure in Matsumura, against whom they have a 15-year old grudge, and with the kidnapped Kei as bait, they await her teacher's arrival. And that's the main problem. The first half sets up Kei as fearless and tough, but after the chief villain shows up, spends much of the second-half whimpering on the floor: Matsumura does far more of the heavy lifting, despite his claim, rather questionable on the evidence here, that "karate is not for fighting."
And that's a shame, as Kei makes a good impression, right from her first bit of action, which sees her surprise an unsuspecting opponent with a kick to the head from a standing position, as shown on the right. Another standout was the kickfest (below), against another real-life karate star, Yuka Kobayashi. Stylistically, however, the main problem is the director's repetitive, frequent use of slow-motion: while this is great in the aforementioned "party tape" atmosphere (where, if someone yells, "Wow, look at that," you can turn around and see it again), it is badly overused and drags the viewer out of the cinematic experience far too often: lob this kind of stuff on as an extra on the DVD, if you must.
The reviews which aren't writing this off entirely tend to point out that it works better if you regard it as some kind of martial-arts promotional piece, and that would tie in with the heavy emphasis that "Karate is a martial art for protection." [Personally, I feel a good pair of running shoes would be just as good there] However, there's little doubting that Takeda is the real deal in terms of fighting ability, and shows a willingness to take punishment as well as dish it out, that is certainly to her credit. However, the inexperience of both her and the creators in the more traditional aspects of film-making - for the final battle, the location appears to be a school gymnasium, on loan to the Destroyers! - do significantly hamper the overall merit.
Dir: Kimura Yoshikatsu
Star: Rina Takeda, Hina Tobimatsu, Horibe Keisuke, Richard William Heselton
Brief: On the plus-side, this does have a plot. On the other hand, you kinda wish they hadn't bothered.
The film manages to cram just about every cliché of martial-arts films into its 92 minutes, with a plot driven by four major threads:
a) You killed my father, and must pay.
b) You run a rival school, and must pay.
c) You are generally not a nice person, and must pay.
d) You kidnapped my sibling, raising them as one of your own and training them in your evil techniques, before sending them out to kill me. Oh, and you must pay for this too, naturally.
Ayaka Kurenai (Takeda) can only watch as her father, a master of karate, is killed in front of her very young eyes, and her sister Sakura (Tobimatsu) is dragged away by the perpetrators. A decade or so later, Ayaka goes viral after using her skills to stop purse-snatchers in the cinema where she works, an event that brings her to the attention of Tagawa Shu (Keisuke), the man behind it all. He still covets the family belt, having apparently missed it when killing the man and kidnapping his daughter. He sends out some minions to verify if she is who she seems - then when that's done, plays his trump card, revealing he has Sakura, in his evil grasp. Little does he reckon that Sakura's family loyalties run deeper than all the training the Evil Dojo can drive into her...
Yeah, the plot is a load of pants, and the acting is nothing to write home about - it's serviceable enough, in line with what you'd expect from a movie with this title. I did enjoy most of the action, and the relaxed style of editing which lets you see the performers and their skill. It doesn't always work, but enough of it does to make for a generally-entertaining time. British-born Heselton. who looks like a pissed-off Simon Pegg on steroids, comes across well, but the highlight is probably the scene where a pair of Tagawa's minions go to Ayaka's karate school, and take on, first her classmates, then her, in an effort to flush her true talent and ancestry out.
Both Takeda and Tobimatsu show potential here. The latter is another young discovery - the next next generation of action heroines? - and it's startling to realize she is just 14. Ine suspects child-labour laws must be a good deal laxer in Japan than the West. Let's just hope their next film isn't plotted out on the back of a beer-mat.
Ninja Girl (Kunoichi)
Dir: Seiji Chiba
Star: Rina Takeda, Yuichi Sato, Masanori Mimoto, Mitsuki Koga
Brief: Save your time, save your money, and go watch Karate Girl instead. Again, if necessary.
From the director of Alien vs. Ninja, the story here centres on a pair of ninjas, Shimotsuki and Hyotsuki, who are carrying on what appears to be a family tradition, kidnapping women from other clans' villages, and taking them back to their own for nefarious purposes - let's just say, the phrase "tools of pleasure" crops up on more than one occasion. They ar returning with their latest batch of four, including Kisaragi (Takeda), who is a ninja in her own right. With the help of a mysterious man (Sato), Kisuragi and her colleagues in imprisonment are released from their bondage - but that is only the first obstacle between them and their freedom. Of course, it turns out the heroine is not quite as innocent as she appears, and has an agenda of her own, because her mother was kidnapped by the same sleazy ninjas, when Kisuragi was just a baby.
Barely an hour long, this still somehow manages to outstay its welcome, managing to spend far more time engaging in borderling misogyny, rather than anything remotely empowering, and a distinctly sleazy tone with plot elements involving castration, venereal disease and a great deal more molestation of helpless women that I generally like (particularly in my ninja flicks). There is really only a single battle of note, when Kisuragi gets to take on one of her captors in a battle that is fairly well-shot and does a good job od showcasing Takeda's undeniable skills. However, you don't get the sense that there was more than a couple of days work involved, and even given the short running time, it's still a negligible amount of what's on view, and there just isn't anything like sufficient elsewhere to keep you interested or entertained.
I haven't seen Chiba's earlier work, but it seems to be basically the same "head off to a forest for some film-making" approach that we see here. That can work in the right hands - Versus is justly the most well-know example of that genre. However, here, it's more like a cheap excuse to disguise the obviously limited production values than anything else. Hopefully, Takeda will soon move beyond this kind of Z-grade dreck: I did read rumours of her being in Chocolate 2, which would be nice if said rumours had the slightest grounding in fact, which seems questionable. Hey, we can dream, can't we?
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