There is an important distinction to be made with Fuyuhiko Nishi's High Kick Girl. As a star vehicle for Rina Takeda - the titular high kicking girl - it's more than adequate. If the goal is simply to serve notice that Japan has a legitimate female martial arts star on their hands, High Kick Girl does a perfectly good job. Takeda commands the screen, she has good charisma, and - importantly - she is fearless in equal measure to her considerable martial arts skills. This film will very likely be a coming out party for Takeda and a calling card to further work on the international market, should she so desire. And - hopefully - it should do the same for Tatsuya Naka, who starred previously in Nishi's Black Belt and delivers a very strong turn here as Takeda's martial arts master. So, a better than passing grade on that front. If, however, you care to judge High Kick Girl on script or technical merits - cinematography, sound design and the like - then the marks come in considerably lower.
Takeda stars as Kei, a karate-obsessed high school girl who - believing that her master's refusal to grant her a black belt despite her obvious skills is the result of his believing her to be too weak - is out to prove her superiority in the simplest yet most flashy way possible. Kei is travelling to different dojo's and karate clubs in Tokyo and challenging their masters to fight her, their black belts being the prize. She is undefeated thus far and her master - a firm believer in the philosophy behind karate rather than in simply promoting physical strength - is less than impressed. But Kei is convinced that a further show of strength is what is necessary to win her master's respect and so when a group of criminal fighters for hire known as The Destroyers offer her the chance to try out for admission into their group, Kei jumps at the chance. How better to prove her strength than in combat against people such as these? But what Kei doesn't know is that The Destroyers have long held a grudge against her master and plan to simply use her as bait to draw him out.
The problems with High Kick Girl are many and frequent and immediately obvious. On the purely technical end, the cinematography is quite poor throughout despite the use of quality gear - this is the worst looking film shot on the Red that I have seen thus far - and the sound design and foley work is muffled and monotonous - a major issue for a martial arts film, a genre in which the impact and force of the blows is communicated primarily through sound. Though fight films frequently have flimsy scripts - a situation most fans are willing to accept - this is particularly so, not only providing only the briefest of sketches for its characters but also asking the audience to accept some truly ludicrous things, such as a highly trained and in demand criminal organization having been unable to find Kei's master after fifteen years of searching despite the fact that he runs a public and successful dojo in Tokyo. Have none of The Destroyers ever heard of a phone book? Because he's probably in it. The prime issue, however, is the film's persistent and flagrant over-use of slow motion replays.
Director Nishi has a good reason to use slow motion, a solid theory behind it. He made this film while embracing a fake-nothing approach to the fighting. Real punches were thrown and real punches landed. This is a full-contact film and the use of slow motion allows the audience to not only see the blows making contact but - in many cases - actually see the ripples of force spreading from the strike out through the recipients body, thereby letting us know that this was no stage punch. It's a solid theory but Nishi over-uses it so dramatically - literally slowing down and replaying EVERY major fight sequence in the film in its entirety - that it becomes tiresome before the first major sequence is over. When used as an accent to sell a key moment - as the technique is used in Ong Bak - it can be an effective method of demonstrating authenticity but as used here ... well, it just becomes tedious. It seems like a conservative estimate to say that a full quarter of the film's running time is made up of these replayed sequences and it is quite possible that the actual number may be closer to a third, which is far, far too much.
High Kick Girl was, without question, made with a huge amount of love and respect for martial arts and martial artists, both. Takeda has a bright future in action film, should she choose to follow it while Naka is an absolute revelation in the climactic fight, a martial artist with a potent blend of power, grace and technique. Many of the villain roles are also filled with charismatic, skilled performers and the entire cast throws themselves into their work with such a disregard for their own safety that it's impossible not to admire what they've tried to do here. Sadly, though, High Kick Girl is far more a fight reel than it is a proper film and the performers involved just deserve better than that.