“Let me walk on my own feet” a defeated boxer insists, reminding us that his victory is in getting up even if he always loses. The heroes of Keisuke Yoshida’s Blue (BLUE/ブルー) are by and large “losers”, though the act of winning lies not so much in knocking out your opponent as in continuing to show up for the fight. Blue is not only a state of mind, but also the colour of the challenger’s corner, the spiritual home of these dejected underdogs who refuse to lie down even when seemingly defeated.
Urita (Kenichi Matsuyama), for example, stays in boxing because there’s nothing else he wants to do though in truth he’s not much good at the sport. What he is good at is encouraging others and even if he’s a bust in the ring he’s an excellent coach and warmhearted mentor. His friend, Ogawa (Masahiro Higashide), meanwhile, is on track to take the national title but is also in denial about a medical condition that could end his career in the ring. And then there’s Narasaki (Tokio Emoto) who only took up boxing because of an offhand comment from a girl he fancied at the pachinko parlour where he works after he got beaten up by a teenager while feeling his masculinity challenged by a handsome coworker.
Narasaki rocks up at the gym and refuses to do anything very strenuous because he only wants to look like someone who boxes, not actually box. Nevertheless, he discovers a genuine aptitude for the sport, gradually overcoming his fear of getting of hurt as he begins to enjoy the discipline of training. His journey directly contrasts with that of one of the other young hopefuls at the club who originally knocks him out during their first sparring match but later falls victim to his own egotism, insisting that he doesn’t need to take advice from a “loser” like Urita and has his own way of doing things. In his characteristic way, Urita just smiles and reminds him it’s important to master the basics but the hotheaded youngster won’t listen, blaming his lack of success on everyone else before getting himself seriously injured trying to prove his own way is superior.
It’s the basic moves which later prove valuable to Narasaki as he attempts to take on a powerful rival, a reminder that there’s no substitute for nailing the fundamentals. Talking over their respective differences, Ogawa wonders if he really loves boxing as much as Urita does but has then to accept that “passion and talent are different” which is why he’s succeeding where Urita failed. In any case, it’s less about winning in the ring than it is about hard work and mastery of a craft. Smarting from his own early defeat, Narasaki also snaps back that he doesn’t want a loser’s advice only to bitterly regret it afterwards, realising that Urita’s strengths lie at the side of the ring rather than inside it.
While Ogawa battles his illness, Narasaki also finds himself conflicted caring for his elderly grandmother and feeling guilty that his newfound love for boxing has led him to neglect her. Urita battles a sense of resentment and despair he covers with good humour in being fully aware that he doesn’t have what takes while attempting to encourage others only latterly confessing that a part of him always hoped Ogawa would lose. The demands of a sporting life may have endangered familial and romantic relationships but the guys do at least have each other and the familial camaraderie of the gym.
The important thing, the film seems to say, is to keep fighting, win or lose. Experiencing various setbacks, the guys each find themselves inhabiting their own internal rings, unable to let go of boxing glory no matter how elusive it may prove to be. Yoshida plays with genre norms such as training montages and ring-set climaxes, but also undercuts them in his frequent allusions to defeat allowing the heroes to lose and sometimes repeatedly solely so that they can get right back up again, on their own feet, ready to fight for something be that mastering the art of boxing or simply gaining a new sense of personal empowerment born of determination and self belief as they recommit to learning the “basics” of a fulfilling life.
Blue streams in Europe (excl. Spain/Andorra) until 2nd July as part of this year’s hybrid edition Udine Far East Film Festival.
Original trailer (English subtitles)
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