A film about the early life of the man who would eventually become the legendary karateka, Mas Oyama.
A young Korean boxer, Choi Bae-dal, is tricked by Japanese propaganda into applying to join the Japanese air force. Upon getting to Japan, he finds that, as a Korean, he will be treated as a prisoner and forced to fly a kamikaze mission - unless he can win his freedom in hand-to-hand combat against the Japanese General Kato. He loses, but to the Japanese soldiers' surprise, actually manages to make the general bleed, right before an American air raid disrupts everything and happens to set the prisoners free.
In post-war Japan, Bae-dal finds work, but has violent clashes with the local Yakuza
branch, being saved by the chance arrival of an old family friend
, Bum-soo. A rickshaw driver by day, at night he commits acts of vigilante violence against American soldiers who rape Japanese women or otherwise brutalise the locals. Between these two activities he meets Yoko, and the two eventually develop a relationship. Bae-dal also makes some more friends in the local Korean community after being introduced by Bum-soo.
Unfortunately, the Yakuza aren't willing to let the Koreans live peacefully. They storm the circus where most of the Koreans live, and kill Bae-dal's old friend and mentor. A gang war on the streets ensues, but achieves little for the Koreans. After this, Bae-dal resolves to train himself to become the most invincible martial artist in Japan, and retreats to the mountains for a training sequence
When his training is over, he returns to civilization and begins dojo-breaking - entering every Karate (and other martial arts) school he finds, and defeating the masters, and any of the students willing to face him. When the head of the Japan Karate Association - his old enemy Kato - hears that a Korean dares to fight - and beat! - Japanese martial artists, something must be done. The Association decides to send their best fighter, Kato's former lieutenant Ryoma
, to kill Bae-dal, who is now using the name Masutatsu Oyama. Oyama just barely manages to survive the fight, killing Ryoma, and is arrested the next morning, but released when it becomes obvious that he acted in self-defence.
When it turns out Ryoma had a wife and son who are now left without his support, Oyama is consumed with guilt, and travels to their home to seek forgiveness by working for them in any way he can. Eventually, he bonds with the son and persuades the widow that he really is a good man (a better man than Ryoma, too), and they encourage him to return to fighting. The Japan Karate Association respond to his comeback by attacking his friends and family, so he demands a final showdown against Kato's own karate school to settle things. In the final battle against Kato himself, Oyama wins, but shows the already-defeated Kato mercy by refusing to throw the final (probably fatal) punch to Kato's face, winning his respect at the same time as establishing himself as the best fighter in Japan.
An epilogue shows him continuing to find new challenges, closing on the shot of him taking on a charging bull with only his bare hands.
This film provides examples of:
- Asskicking Pose: Averted. Choi's favoured stance is a simple boxing guard. The few opponents stupid enough to try elaborate stances get unpleasant things done to them. Then subverted; at the end Choi and Kato are so evenly matched that they take a moment's time out to limber up and get into their preferred stances again.
- Asskicking Equals Authority/Authority Equals Asskicking: justified in that the masters are universally better fighters than their students. However, the fact that General Kato and his lieutenant Ryoma are the only people on Bae-dal's level is a straighter example.
- Badass Bystander: When a gang of Yakuza pull swords on Bae-dal, some guy in a hat (later revealed to be an old friend) leaps out of the crowd and fights them to a standstill - despite only having one hand.
- Badass Longcoat: Bum-soo; later, Ryoma.
- Book Ends: the fights with Kato. At the start of the film, he loses by punching Kato in the face; at the end of the film, he wins by refusing to punch Kato in the face.
- Charles Atlas Superpower: Choi develops improbably powerful fighting technique, strength, and resilience, from his mountain training, including the ability to smash rocks and break limbs with a single punch. Surprisingly, this is one of the few things the film gets right - Oyama really was that good.
- Curb-Stomp Battle: Only the masters pose any kind of threat to Choi; students get dispatched with one or two punches.
- Decoy Antagonist: the American soldier who sees Choi, in his vigilante phase, as a personal rival, is set up as a villain, but dispatched offscreen a few minutes later.
- Heroic BSOD: Happens to Oyama no less than three times: after Bum-soo's death, once through despair in the mountains, and once when he realises that violence has horrible consequences.
- Hoist by His Own Petard/Suicidal Overconfidence: Ryoma is easily the best fighter in the film, and could have effortlessly beaten Choi if he had only not been arrogant enough to toy around with him instead of fighting seriously.
- Important Haircut: After his Heroic BSOD in the mountains, Choi shaves off one eyebrow, to make sure he can't return to civilization until it's grown back (a traditional act in Japanese culture).
- Let's Get Dangerous: Kato and Choi both, when they each realise that the other is too tough for the usual curb-stomp to work.
- Made of Iron: Choi's modus operandi. The mountain training was specifically intended to make him able to take any kind of punishment Japan throws at him. Kicks and punches bother him about as much as a stiff breeze.
- Made of Plasticine: Unnamed characters who make the mistake of fighting Choi.
- Martial Arts Uniform: Choi wears one for most of the second two-thirds of the movie - it is his only clothing while training in the mountains.
- Ninja: One (implied to be one) provides one of his more difficult fights, outside a feudal-era Japanese castle.
- Peek-a-Bangs: Ryoma. For most of the film, conceals the fact that he's actually blind in one eye.
- Reality Ensues: You want to have a badass martial-arts duel to the death in an abandoned temple? Expect to be arrested, and to have to deal with the fact you just created a widow and orphan.
- Roaring Rampage of Revenge: the Koreans go on one after Bum-soo is murdered. Its general ineffectiveness prompts Bae-dal to go on his mountain adventure.
- Scry vs. Scry: Subverted. Before the duel with Ryoma, he has a vision of the katana wielding rival being stopped before he can unsheath his sword and then losing. When they do fight, however, the rival is able to draw his katana and lay it flat on his opponent's head, showing that he could have easily won. Then they fight for real.
- 10-Minute Retirement: After killing Ryoma, Choi puts his gi aside and swears never to fight again. This doesn't last very long.
- Theme Music Power-Up/Autobots, Rock Out!: Don't stand in front of Choi's fists when the guitar starts.
- Took a Level in Badass: Choi takes a colossal one during the mountain training.
- Training from Hell: Learning to take any punishment, by taking every punishment.
- Training Montage: a classic straight example.
- Very Loosely Based on a True Story: calling this film historically inaccurate is the height of understatement - about the only things that are accurate is that Choi (Yeong-eui, not Bae-dal) was a Korean, who became a fighter pilot, who became a Made of Iron karate master. Most of the characters are completely fictional, and many events of the real Choi's life are distorted or skipped over.
- Ryoma and Kato did not exist.
- Choi was actually encouraged by the real-life karate master Funakochi.
- Kamikaze missions weren't entrusted to Korean-born pilots; in fact, Choi had a successful but short career in the air force.
- As Oyama, he never showed any signs of overt Korean patriotism, and spent the rest of his life as a Japanese citizen.
- Worthy Opponent: Choi's true victory is when Kato finally recognises him as this.
- Yakuza: provide the main motivation for Choi's level-up when they murder Bum-soo.
- Yamato Nadeshiko: Youko, Bae-dal's lover, is a maiko (geisha-in-training), wears kimono in all her appearances, and lives a relatively traditional lifestyle. In fact, she is shown to wear Western clothing only once in the entire film.