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Exploitation Review #1: KARATE: THE HAND OF DEATH (1961) (1 Viewer)

Brian Thibodeau

Supporting Actor
Dec 10, 2003
Studio: Something Weird
Run*Time: 80 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 OAR
Audio:Mono English and Japanese
Subtitles: None
Special*Features: The incredible Martial Arts Mayhem Kung-Fu Trailer Show (see below)
Release*Date: Available
SRP: $19.95 (widely available for much less)

Produced and Directed by Joel Holt
Written by David Hill
Director of Photography: Tatsuo Namikawa
Music by Minaru Miki
Karate Technical Director Hidetaka Nishiyama
Title Design: Iwao Ashida
Production Manager: Ken Noyle
Associate Producer: Margy Holt
Cast: Joel Holt, Frank Blaine, Akira Shiga, Joe Hirakawa, Reiko Okada, Ken Noyle, Fujio Ito, Mayana, Tom Moore, Bob Markworth, Maurice Gruel, Rie Sugura, Tony Sugahara, Naboro Kudisahi, Kanji Hayashi, Akiko Seo, Takao Minami, Tadashi Yamaki, Akio Watanabe, Shigayaoshi Kawai, Yoichi Wada, Jiro Endo, Kashio Ushida, Jiro Kodama, Sho Onoda, Kinji Inoue, and the Men of the Japanese Karate Association.

Preceding THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE and its then new-fangled martial arts scenes by over a year, KARATE: THE HAND OF DEATH may work less successfully at weaving its martial art of choice into the plot, but provides a refreshingly progressive westernized view of Japanese culture and tradition, without placing either on a pedestal.

Ex-GI and karate expert Matt Carver (Joel Holt) - Japanese-born but spared the cruel fate meted his parents in an internment camp during the war - returns to Japan to find his former girlfriend Toshiko, whom he believes to be dead. While enjoying a scenic walk around Tokyo, his wallet is stolen. The cops aren’t much help but, recognizing the callouses on his knuckles, Lt. Okada requests that he at least register his deadly weapons in accordance with Japanese law (who knew?). Soon after, Matt calls his childhood friend Akira (Akira Shiga), Toshiko’s brother, to arrange a meeting with their father, Kosaka, Matt’s sensei, and it’s here that Matt learns the sad truth: Toshiko is indeed dead and the photo he received anonymously was of her younger sister, Reiko (Reiko Okada), although she has no idea who snapped the picture.

Carver’s wallet is discovered and returned to him via the police, but found inside is a rare coin that the audience saw ripped off a blind man at the outset of the film. The coin, natch, draws all sorts of unwanted trouble, beginning with lumbering British goon named Ivan Mayberry (Frank Blaine) with whom Carver later reluctantly teams up to solve the mystery. Mid-film, the pair visit Akira’s dojo, where an impromptu tour affords Holt the director a ten-minute sequence explaining the origins and significance of Karate while showing a variety of demonstrations of the form, while Akira answers Mayberry’s questions in voiceover. A brief dialogue exchange is doubled for some reason in the scene where the pair exit the dojo.

Then it’s on to a nightclub where dancer Mayana suffers the unkindest cut of all: a jarring edit of her topless flash that stands out like a sore boob. It’s here that Carver discovers he’s been set-up all along by Blofeld-like crime boss Rohmer (Ken Noyle). Carver makes his escape using very little karate, surprisingly, instead expertly wielding a bale of hay to kill Rohmer in a car crash (!). Almost immediately, Matt heads to an electronics shop to analyse the coin and discovers a clever clue that leads him to yet another villain who’s been surreptitiously screwing him all along. This, of course, leads to a big karate fight infused with even more revelations!

KARATE is usually credited as the first film to bring karate - or any real Asian martial arts to the screen. True or not, it pays much more respect the culture, its people and their traditions than just about any Hollywood film of the period and, in its lead character, finds a compelling character haunted by his conflicting allegiances during a crucial period of history. Holt the actor is nearly - but not quite - up to the challenge of essaying such a role, but though the actor’s Japanese seems limited, but he integrates himself very effectively into scenes where he’s required to use it. Holt’s distinctive, announcerly voice would serve him well after this as narrator of films like Joe Mawra’s OLGA trilogy of roughies and CHAINED GIRLS (another lesbian-themed classic), as well as the bizzaro SOUL SNATCHERS, which can be found on Something Weird’s ASYLUM OF SATAN Special Edition. His weak karate, however, is underscored by the demonstrations by the experts in the centrepiece dojo sequence that justifies the film’s title.

As a filmmaker, Holt makes good - though unremarkable - use of the widescreen frame, shooting the film entirely on location, which is quite a unique visual treat if you’ve only seen Tokyo in more recent Japanese offerings. KARATE almost feels like film noir at times, due in large part to Tatsuo Namikawa’s intentionally cold, crisp cinematography - evidenced by SW’s well-preseved print - and Holt’s rapid-fire, deadpan delivery.

KARATE is often slagged for not having enough karate to back up its name, but it’s clear Holt wasn’t making a martial arts film. he was clearly attempting to address Deeper Issues while paying lip service to the one aspect of Asian culture that might be intriguing to American cinemagoers. As such, taken as an intelligent B-movie, KARATE is a remarkable first in American exploitation cinema (and not just for Mayana’s hooters), perhaps not the best of its kind when compared to what came later, but a senstive, reasonably incisive study of two men unable to reconcile the dual nature of their personalities - one torn between a culture he doesn’t understand (his own) and another, more familiar culture that has become ugly in the years since he left it, the other perveted by a need to protect both cultural hegemony and personal gain. Pretty lofty stuff for a low-budget programmer, but one has to give an unknown like Holt credit for even trying, and wearing three hats in the process. Odd that his only other directorial endeavour was the tawdry, posthumous WILD, WILD WORLD OF JAYNE MANSFIELD some seven years later (which likely came about after his involvement as producer on her 1964 Italian sex farce PRIMITIVE LOVE).

And now, our second feature!

Appealing story! A climatic production! Excellent plot! Devil Weapons! Movable sight in every second!

For those familiar with the inimitable, wonderfully mangled English hyperbole practiced by Chinese martial arts film distributors, this disc also includes THE INCREDIBLE MARTIAL ARTS MAYHEM KUNG-FU TRAILER SHOW, a two-hours-plus collection of 50 trailers ranging from classic Shaw Brothers to James Ryan (never heard of him? You’re not alone). These are nearly all English language release trailers and run the gamut from simple on-screen titles, like those above, to the velvet smooth inner-city intonations of a narrator who was clearly hired to pitch the films to the black audience of the time (“Take yo’ mama to see it before somebody else does!”) I'm no expert on old-school kung-fu (at least not yet), but these trailers are a fine introduction to the form: Herewith a rundown of the trailers in the order they appear on the disc (which differs from the alphabetical listing on the package), with a few comments.

-Two Swords, Two Sorcerers
- Flying Claw Fights 14 Demons
- The Iron-Fist Rebel
- Temple of Death
- Japanese Connection
- Deadly Strike (aka Wanted Bruce Li - Dead or Alive
- Masters of the Iron Arena
- Chaku-Master (aka Kung-Fu Death Wish): This Bruce Ly nunchaku spectacular features a cheesy synth rip of Lalo Schifrin’s ENTER THE DRAGON score.
- Superfist - Contemporary 70’s Bruce Lei flick, with swingin’ 70’s score to match.
- Big Bad Bolo: Contemporary 70’s actioner has Bolo swingin’ his Big Bad Bolo-Boobs all over Europe. Great fun!
- Lee, The Angry Man: Contemporary action film
- Shaolin Master Killer: Not sure what this is really, but it’s not 36th CHAMBER. Directed by and starring Gordon Liu.
- He Has Nothing But Kung-Fu (aka Gangbusters Kung-Fu)Gordon Liu, avec hair, teams up with Jimmy Wang Yu!

All above trailers are presented widescreen 2.35:1, with the exception of Chaku-master and appear to be distributed by the same company, as they all contain a red bar with white english lettering covering the opening studio logo and titles. Many of the following trailers are also widescreen, from a mixed bag of distribs:

- World War of Kung-Fu
- Incredible Master Beggars: Bruce Leung, Ku Feng
- Ten Tigers of Shaolin: Bruce Leung, Jason Pai Piau
- Tower of the Drunken Dragons
- The Mad, The Mean & The Deadly - Contemporary piece looks set in Italy, stars Raymond Chan and Yasuaki Kurata
- Single Fighter
- The Karate Killer (first trailer in this collection to feature English voicover. Contemporary feature with one dude who has a killer ponytail
- The Screaming Tiger; with Jimmy Wang Yu
- Blood of the Dragon: with Jimmy Wang Yu. Features U.S. voiceover
- Devil Woman - Thailand-set horror martial-arts flick featuring the popular snake-haired woman who turns up in many Thai horror flicks. Here, she’s got REAL snakes for hair! this trailer is double billed with...
- Dragons Never Die: “Take yo’ mama to see it before somebody else does!”
- Korean Connection: Not sure, but this looks like an actual Korean martial arts flick from the 70’s. At the very least, most of the cast looks Korean. Stars Yong Chol. New to this collection.
- The Thunder Kick: U.S. trailer from Cannon.
- Shanghai Killers: English narration
- Sister Streefighter: cool English voiceover on this New Line Cinema trailer
- Sacred Knives of Vengeance: starring Chin Han (one-time Mr. Brigitte Lin). Warner Bros. U.S. trailer.
- Kung Fu: The Punch of Death: starring Meng Fei and Yasuaki Kurata
- Chinese Hercules: another classic Bolo flick starring “the Beast from the East!” This National General Pictures trailer uses clips from Bruce Lee and Angela Mao movies to prepare us for the magnificence of Bolo.
- Fearless Fighters - plenty of wild wire-fu in this trailer with English voiceover.
- Slash: The Blade of Death. Identicall trailer to one previously seen, just can’t remember which at the moment, possibly Shanghai Killers
- Hands of Death: “A film that answers the question, is kung-fu greater than karate?!?” The hyperbole only gets bigger from there.
- The Streefighter: “6-foot-6 of Half Breed Fury” screams the New Line marketing department in this trailer to the legendary Sonny Chiba flick. “you beat a man, they call you tough. You beat an army, they call you the STREETfighter!” Classic.
- Return of the Streetfighter: “The mafia’s moved into Japan, and what they can’t buy, they TAKE, but the Streetfighter’s not for sale!”
- When Tae Kwon Do strikes: starring Jhoon Rhee. “See why five million Americans worship this grandmaster!” English-narrated Golden harvest international trailer, distributed through World Northall
- Tattoo Connection: Another World Northal classic, Jim Kelly’s followup to Blackbelt Jones.
- Snake Fist Fighter: Trades on Jackie Chan’s appearance in The Big Brawl. Uses hilarious “fan” testimony like “That Jackie Chan, he’s a mean mutha-fucka!” Yeah, okay... 21st Century Distribution U.S. trailer.
- Slaughter in San Francisco: Golden Harvest U.S. trailer for their latest senstaton, Mr. Chuck Norris!
- Kill or Be Killed: Semi rip-off of Enter the Dragon, with James Ryan as Steve Hunt, who goes undercover at an International Kung-fu tourney run by a madman. “Stunts that make a mockery of the laws of gravity!” The fights don’t look too bad in this Film Ventures Inernational trailer.
- Kill & Kill Again: “James Ryan (who?) is BACK as Steve Chase in the most explosive action adventure of our time,” this time taking on Marduc’s evil Karate clones with his A-team of martial pals, including “the magnificent Candy Cane!” Another Film Ventures classic.
- Dragons Die Hard: “Watch every piece of TRUTH about Bruce Lee explode before your very eyes!”
- Shogun Massacre (aka The Buddha Assassinator), starring Randy Mang Hoi and Wong Ching-li.
- Master of the Flying Guillotine: ‘Nuff Said!”
- Superdragon: starring one of the Bruce Lee clones, though they don’t specify.
- Shanghai Lil and the Sun Luck Kid: starring Shu Shu, released by Bardene International.
- Fury of the Black Belt: “Movable sight in every second” in this LANA Films U.S. trailer.
- Thunderfist: Artisan Releasing U.S. trailer
- Deep Thrust (aka lady Whirlwind) American International trailer for this Angela Mao Actioner.

The condition of the vast majority of these trailers, a great number of them from Taiwanese period martial arts films, is quite remarkable, considering their age, and most are far better than the VHS tapes and crummy Xenon DVDs that have been available for the actual films to date (excluding the newer Celestial Shaw Bros. releases). Quite a fun batch of trailers for those so interested, though the uninitiated are advised against watching them all in one sitting, as the endless zooms and overly “structured” martial arts fights might begin to blur after awhile. The majority of these trailers were previously released on VHS in Something Weird’s Martial Arts Mayhem series, with the exception of those for KOREAN CONNECTION, THUNDER KICK, SHANGHAI KILLERS, KUNG FU: PUNCH OF DEATH, SLASH: THE BLADE OF DEATH, and HANDS OF DEATH, which are new to this collection.

Overall, Something Weird’s package for KARATE: THE HAND OF DEATH is worth its low price.

:star: :star: :star: :star: out of :star: :star: :star: :star: :star:


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