It's an early Takashi Miike film and it's doing what it says on the tin, but better. There's a karate master called Kiba who works as a bodyguard, but the story's not really about him.
Firstly, it's a small franchise. Originally it was an action manga by Ikki Kajiwara, first adapted into a Bodyguard Kiba film in 1973, starring Sonny Chiba. That film had a more pro-active Kiba than the one I watched this morning, with its hero holding a press conference to announce his intention to wipe out Japan's drug lords. A recut version with extra footage was released in America in 1976 and starts with a quote that Quentin Tarantino ripped off for Samuel L. Jackson's Ezekiel passage in Pulp Fiction.
Takashi Miike then came along in the 1990s and made three more straight-to-video Kiba films, of which this is the first. I wasn't expecting much, but Kiba's great. Firstly, he doesn't carry a gun. He doesn't need one. He lives in a dojo and he's such a karate nerd that he's planning to give his fee from the job he does in this movie to his karate school. You see, what throws everyone else in this movie is the fact that Kiba's nice. He stops his clients from killing people. After beating up thugs who attacked him, he tells the police. (The consternation this causes among the yakuza is funny.) He's square-jawed, he wears a suit and a tie and it's a joy to see him strolling towards three gun-toting yakuza in mid-torture and telling them to stop it.
He's a boy scout, basically. He's like Superman, if he'd been a bit less high-minded and took jobs protecting gangsters who'd just got out of prison.
I loved Kiba... but there's not actually much to him as a character. He's cool and he's good at karate. That's it. He's just a man doing a job. The nearest anything gets to affecting him personally comes when the yakuza put out false information that Kiba's trash-talking the local karate schools, which produces challenges and karate dickwaving. That was funny, but it's hardly deep.
No, the real story involves Kiba's client, Junpei. Ten minutes at the start of the film show Junpei as a low-level yakuza whose boss has a habit of kicking him. It's not personal. He just likes kicking and punching Junpei whenever he's cranky about anything whatsoever. Some people use swear words as punctuation, but this guy uses kicks. Anyway, Junpei is the driver on a drugs deal. Money is involved. I won't go into too much detail, but these ten minutes will involve finger-chopping, a Chinese gangster, a Thai prostitute and a knife in the gut. If the police hadn't caught Junpei, he'd have been six feet under and probably in pieces.
Five years later, Junpei gets out and would like to retrieve the 500,000,000 yen he stole. Unfortunately so would his former colleagues, who got flattened in a gang war while he was inside but can still rustle up enough firepower to take out punks. Junpei thus hires Kiba.
The emotional meat of this story is all Junpei and his girlfriend. Junpei starts out as a big-mouthed dick, ordering Kiba around, overruling his advice and getting his hands on a gun. (Later there's a fight in a corridor, which is where you absolutely don't want your client waving around firearms.) You don't like him at all and you wouldn't have blamed Kiba if he'd dropped Junpei into the sea and walked away. However over time, Kiba's influence softens Junpei. He becomes human. He tells us his ambitions and why he drifted into crime in the first place. Most importantly, he wants to help his girlfriend and he's prepared to stick by her even under extreme circumstances. This film's character work for Junpei is excellent and he gets a lot of development over the course of the plot.
Then there's his girlfriend, who's an even juicier character than Junpei. She gets less screen time than him, but it's a standout role with powerful internal conflict. (How did that police tip-off tie in, by the way?) They're both really good and together they give this story its heart and soul.
It's a cheapie, of course. Takashi Miike isn't going over the top as he would in his more notorious films later, but he still makes a juicy gangster flick with emotional content but also more than enough karate action to please the neanderthals. It's not flashy Hong Kong kung fu, but that's fine. It's specifically karate, which makes for blunt, to-the-point fight scenes. Meanwhile the yakuza are extremely bad people. Miike also gives more attention than usual for him to the sex scenes and nudity. (It's not that he's afraid of showing flesh, but you wouldn't call him a skinflick director and his films are more notorious for perversion than for mere boobage.)
The main visual oddity is that the action's supposedly set in Okinawa, but the weather looks grim, not tropical. Did they shoot in December or something? You'd think they were on a ferry in the North Sea.
Most of the cast isn't particularly renowned, but Ren Osugi's in there. He's playing a yakuza who says he hates violence and pain. Uh-huh. However even apart from him, everyone's fine, I thought. Miike shoots quickly and with plenty of energy, so I suspect he's quite good at keeping actors on their toes. Shinobu Tanaka's reaction on seeing Junpei again might not look that convincing, but it's possible to think of various in-character reasons for that and I kept watching. (Tanaka's acting career was extremely short, incidentally, and she's better known as a composer for Mario games.) One actor to look out for though is Hisao Maki as Kiba's karate master, who's the younger brother of Ikki Kajiwara, co-wrote this film's screenplay and is himself a manga creator.
Random observation: in a formal karate challenge, is it really okay to pull out two sickles? Isn't that cheating?
I thought this was very good. It looks like a straightforward, hard-boiled gangster movie, but Boy Scout Kiba's delightful and the film has a strong emotional story and far better female roles than it might have had. (As well as Shinobu Tanaka, there's also Megumi Sakita as a kick-arse colleague of Kiba's. Seeing her get a fight scene was cool.) Very happy to have seen another surprisingly impressive Miike film.