Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

The Art of Self-Defense, or: Typing This Is Difficult with My Weak Woman Fingers

You could argue that toxic masculinity inevitably has adverse effects on mental health (which it does). Otherwise, this week’s film serves as a final reminder that we have utterly failed to stick to our theme during this month of highlighting mental health. I can live with this, especially as I feel this month’s theme on the Collab was very good for my mental health, personally.

The Film:

The Art of Self-Defense

The Premise:

After he is the victim of a violent attack, mild-mannered Casey decides to embrace the masculine art of karate in a quest to no longer live in fear.

The Ramble:

*Spoilers follow*

Casey Davies is the sort of person who awkwardly defends his boss to his dude bro coworkers and apologizes profusely to his dog (but, honestly, you might be a sociopath if you don’t). An accountant who keeps to himself and rejects the swagger of toxic masculinity, Casey is nonetheless intrigued by the fearless confidence of his rather mediocre coworkers.

A man stands in an office kitchen, speaking to another man who is seated.

One night, after Casey is attacked by a motorcycle gang, his life changes in unexpected ways. The violence of the assault shakes Casey to his core, and it no longer feels enough to quietly keep to himself and hope for the best. Uninterested in returning to work and too terrified to even go outside after dark, Casey decides to buy a handgun for self-defense, though the mandatory waiting period means several days must pass for him to buy a firearm.

In the mean time, Casey strolls past a karate dōjō and wanders inside, drawn to the discipline, power, and strength of the practice. As the Sensei puts it, karate is forming words with your fists and feet–a concept that appeals to the traumatized Casey immensely.

A man in a black karate uniform, a karategi, poses with one fist extended.

Though karate requires rigorous and humbling training to earn even the lowest ranking of a yellow belt, Casey fully embraces his role as a student. He no longer feels a gun is needed as karate will teach him the skill of punching with the feet and kicking with his hands (whatever the fuck that means). Besides, the 11th rule of the dōjō is that guns are for the weak; considering that the karate master and founder of the dōjō was killed in a suspicious gun accident while hiking, this rule is taken quite seriously.

When Casey earns the yellow belt, it becomes his entire identity as he buys only yellow foods and orders a custom yellow belt so he can feel the confidence of his achievement always. However, even as he celebrates his accomplishments, Casey begins to notice the flaws in the hierarchy Sensei controls: female instructor Anna will seemingly never earn a black belt despite her skills, and blue belt Henry seems destined to stay at this level eternally.

A woman wearing a white gi looks fiercely at a man facing her.

Still, Casey is determined to master karate and become the best, most hypermasculine version of himself possible. In order to do so, Sensei advises Casey to hold onto the yellow belt even though it doesn’t feel earned, start listening to the toughest music (metal), stop coddling his pet dachshund, and take up the hobby of learning German instead of French.

By following Sensei’s lead, Casey gains an air of authority based on fear rather than respect. He even earns a spot at the coveted night class, widely understood as the hardcore version of the day class. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s at the legendary night class that things take a dark turn: arms are broken, teeth knocked out, and Anna beats new black belt Thomas within an inch of his life. During the class cooldown, Casey can no longer deny how sexist the dōjō is, as he discovers the women’s changing room is basically a utility closet with a few towels thrown in. Worse, as the newbie, he must suffer the supposedly horrible indignity of Anna’s weak woman hands massaging him.

A man in black karategi stands in the middle of a mat, speaking to karate students lined up in a row facing him.

Though Sensei’s idiotic words of wisdom have covered his true intentions well to this point, it becomes clear that he’s a much more sinister figure. Claiming to have located the leader of the motorcycle gang responsible for the attack on Casey, Sensei encourages him to beat up the man. Casey does fight the man and seriously injures him, which Sensei records on film. Suspiciously, Casey returns home to find his dog has been attacked, suffering from what appears to be a punch from a foot.

After confronting Sensei, Casey realizes his instructor has the upper hand with the recording of his student violently attacking a man without provocation. Sensei asks Casey to join him for an unspecified errand, which of course ends up being joining his motorcycle gang to beat up a hapless victim that night. It’s Casey’s job to find the perfect target; what could possibly go wrong?

The Rating:

4/5 Pink Panther Heads

Ooooooooh, where to begin? I’m still puzzling over this one, which succeeds in being very funny, extremely dark, and quite insightful into the way toxic masculinity works.

Initially, it’s rather easy to dismiss Sensei as idiotically spouting nonsense because he may not be quite as insightful as he believes. However, as the film shifts into darker territory, it’s clear that the nonsense is intentional, accurately reflecting his warped understanding of the world. It doesn’t come as a shock that Sensei is in much greater control than any of his students realize as they fail to process that, in addition to judging which of his students are inherently worthwhile, he has created the entire system of values itself. Of course establishing the world as a violent and dangerous place, then positioning yourself as the teacher who can help people become tough enough to survive it will prove an effective strategy. It’s more or less the first lesson of Intro to Cult Leadership.

But, to the observer, the unbreakable rules of toxic masculinity are quickly unraveled. Sensei discusses how Anna, as a woman, is inherently unsuited to karate, yet her supposedly natural maternal instinct makes her the best instructor for the children’s classes. Less than 200 years ago, most teachers were men, so perhaps the idea that a specific gender makes anyone more or less suited to a certain job is nonsense. And Sensei’s insistence that Anna isn’t the right candidate for a black belt shifts the blame to her, rather than exploring the ways the system has been set up to undermine her accomplishments (to say nothing of his own personal bias). Speaking of Anna, there is absolutely no romantic story line with her, praise the lord. It’s refreshing that, as the only female character, Anna is decidedly not there as a love interest.

The ending itself is somehow both very disturbing and quite heartwarming. Ultimately, Casey does have to speak the language of toxic masculinity to defeat it–but will he embrace it as a belief system or use it as a tool for a different purpose?

Would my blog wife bow respectfully to this one or aim a foot punch and fist kick its way? Find out in her review here!

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