Blue (BLUE/ブルー, Keisuke Yoshida, 2021)

“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)

Knockout (どついたるねん, Junji Sakamoto, 1989)

Knockout cap 1Thirty years after his debut, the career of director Junji Sakamoto has proved hard to pin down. An early focus on manly action drama gave way to character pieces, issue films, and comedy, but it was with his breakout first feature Knockout (どついたるねん, Dotsuitarunen) that something like a signature style was born. One of Japan’s many boxing movies (perhaps an unexpectedly populous genre), Knockout is once again the story of a man fighting himself as he struggles to overcome serious physical injury, emotional trauma, and his own fiercely unpleasant personality to finally become the kind of champion he has always feared himself incapable of becoming.

Dreaming dreams of boxing glory, Adachi (Hidekazu Akai) trained hard since he was a small boy and eventually became a champion of the ring. However, an ill-timed blow from a subpar opponent left him with an unexpected, life threatening injury requiring brain surgery after which he was advised to stay behind the ropes for the remainder of his days. A total asshole with a violent streak, Adachi can’t help alienating all those around him including childhood friend Takako (Haruko Sagara) whose father owns the National Brand gym where he used to train and had given vague promises of taking over once he retired. In his newly irritable state, Adachi has decided to start his own high class gym and has teamed up with a boxing enthusiast friend, Harada (Tetsuya Yuki), who runs a gay club, to buy National Brand’s promoter license to set up alone.

This being the kind of film that it is, it’s a given that Adachi will eventually want to get back in the ring despite all the inherent risks to his physical body. Nevertheless, the journey towards that realisation will be a humbling one as he is forced to confront the fact that he is a terrible person whose intense self obsession and intimidating behaviour has everyone around him walking on eggshells. Consequently, he does not make a particularly good boxing coach thanks to his didactic methods and rigid insistence on doing everything his own way. Only the kindly assistance of an older man, Sajima (Yoshio Harada), who also retired from the ring through injury, begins to show him the error of his ways but it’s not until he’s truly alienated all of his prospective pupils, as well as his patient backer, that he finally understands where it is that he belongs. 

Set in his native Osaka, Sakamoto weaves a rich tapestry of local life from the feisty Takako who dearly wanted to get in the ring herself only to be met with the constant refrain that boxing’s not for girls, to the mysterious Harada and his largely offscreen gay bar at which Adachi seems to be a frequent yet unwilling visitor who claims the place is too “weird” and fears interacting with others in the establishment. Meanwhile the applicants at his new gym which promises training with a “kindly” coach run from young toughs to softening salarymen desperate to engage with their dwindling masculinity. This is definitively a manly affair in which the frustrations of young(ish) men take centre stage though mainly through the destructive effects they have on the world around them – you’ll nary find a face around here that doesn’t have a bruise on it. While Adachi’s parents tiptoe around their own son as if he were some sort of gangster, Takako is the only one willing and able to stand up to him save the late entry of Sajima who appears to be dealing with some neatly symmetrical family issues of his own.

Starring real life boxer Hidekazu Akai, Knockout strives for realism in the ring even whilst emphasising the ongoing psychodrama that lies behind it. Adachi, like many boxing heroes, is engaged in constant battle with himself, trying to overcome the frightened little boy he once was rather than accepting him and admitting that even older he is often still scared and angry without really knowing why. Perhaps through his final, infinitely dangerous entry into the ring he will find some kind of answers to the questions he has been too afraid to ask but he has, in any case, become less of a problem for those around him in his continued quest towards becoming the best version of himself.


100 Yen Love (百円の恋, Masaharu Take, 2014)

165856_02Actress of the moment Sakura Ando steps into the ring, literally, for this tale of plucky underdog beating the odds in unexpected ways. It would be wrong to call 100 Yen Love (百円の恋, Hyaku Yen no Koi) a “boxing movie”, it’s more than half way through the film before the protagonist decides to embark on the surprising career herself and though there are the training sequences and match based set pieces they aren’t the focus of the film. Rather, the plucky underdog comes to the fore as we watch the virtual hikkikomori slacker Ichiko eventually become a force to be reckoned with both in the ring and out.

Ichiko Saito is a 32-year-old woman with no job who still lives at home in her parents’ bento store where she also refuses to help out. With unkempt hair, slobbish pyjamas and a bad attitude, she stays in all day playing video games with her nephew other than running out to the 100 yen store late at night for more cheap and nasty snacks. Her sister has recently moved home after a divorce and to put it plainly, the two do not get on. Finally the mother decides the sister is the one most in need and more or less throws Ichiko out onto the streets. She gets herself a little apartment and a job in the 100 yen store where she’s perved over by a sleazy colleague and amused by a crazy old lady who turns up each night to help herself to the leftover bento.

Ichiko also becomes enamoured with a frequent customer who they nickname “Banana Man” because he just comes in, buys a ridiculous number of bananas, and leaves without saying anything. He’s even more awkward than Ichiko though he seems to kind of like her too. Banana Man is an amateur boxer and eventually ends up staying in Ichiko’s apartment following a rather complicated chain of events. When this too goes wrong, Ichiko decides to try her hand at boxing herself, hoping to make the next set of matches before she passes the age threshold.

We aren’t really given much of a back story for Ichiko, other than that her polar opposite sister thinks she’s too much like their father who also seems to be a mildly depressed slacker only now in early old age. Her mother is at the end of her tether and her sister probably just has problems of her own but at any rate does not come across as a particularly sensitive or sympathetic person. Getting kicked out at this late stage might actually be the best thing for Ichiko though it’s undoubtedly a big adjustment with her family offering nothing more than possible financial support.

Working in the 100 yen store isn’t so bad but it doesn’t really suit Ichiko with her isolated shyness and lack of work experience. Mind you, it seems like it doesn’t suit anyone very well as her manager quits right away and her only co-worker is a lecherous criminal who literally will not stop talking or take no for an answer. Ichiko’s only real relationship is with Banana Man but even this is strange with Ichiko becoming infatuated and coming on too strong for the rather immature amateur boxer who’s just hit the end of his career. If Ichiko is going to get anywhere she’ll have to do it on her own and on her own terms, no one is going to help her or be on hand to offer any kind of life advice.

That is, until she starts boxing where she gets some coaching, if only inside the ring. The gloves give her a purpose, in getting to a real match before the age limit passes (it’s 32 and she is already 32) she finally has something concrete to work towards and strive for. She just wants to win, once, after all the awful and humiliating things that have happened to her, she just wants to hit back. Even if she falls at the final hurdle, these seemingly small elements have caused a sea change within her. No longer holed up at home, too fearful to engage with anything or anyone, Ichiko has her self respect back and can truly stand on her own two feet.

Indeed, the film might well be called sympathy for the loser – what attracts Ichiko to the sport to begin with is the mini shoulder hug at the end between the victorious and the defeated. With the idea that it’s OK to lose, there are no hard feelings between athletes and even a mutual respect for those who’ve done their best even if they didn’t quite make it, this moment of catharsis seems to give Ichiko the connection she’s been craving. However, the film’s ending is a little more ambiguous and where this rapid transformation of the “100 yen kind of girl” might take her may be harder to chart.


100 Yen Love is Japan’s submission for the 2016 Academy Awards.

Tokyo Fist (東京フィスト, Shinya Tsukamoto, 1995)

tokyo-fist_still_7Following on from their excellent remastered Tetsuo set and the more recent Kotoko, Third Window Films have again brought us another classic film from the back catalogue of one of Japan’s most underrated auteurs – Shinya Tsukamoto.

Tsuda (played by Shinya Tsukamoto himself) is a hard working insurance salesman in mid ‘90s Tokyo. He lives with a beautiful fiancée in a pretty nice flat and everything seems to be going pretty well for him except that he’s been so unbearably tired lately. Then, one fateful day a colleague asks him to deliver some money to a boxing club (which sounds kind of dodgy in itself) where he’s spotted by an old acquaintance, Kojima (played by Shinya Tsukamoto’s boxer brother Koji). Though it’s clear Tsuda doesn’t wish to resume a friendship with Kojima, somehow he still manages to worm his way into his life. This unwanted intrusion from the past begins to deeply unsettle the civilised life Tsuda and Hizaru had been living up to this point and sets them on a path of atavistic disintegration.

When you look at Tsuda at the beginning of the movie, it’s easy to think he’s ‘happy’ because the life he seems to be living is ‘normal’. He works hard, he lives with a woman he intends to marry and they seem settled and well matched. However, if you look more closely, you can see the cracks are all there even before Kojima turns up. His ‘tiredness’ is perhaps a symptom of the dissatisfaction he might not even realise he’s feeling with his boring, ordinary city life. When Hizaru, his girlfriend, asks him sensitively about his tiredness and suggests maybe he’s overworking and that she wouldn’t mind continuing to work even after they get married Tsuda’s reaction is quite telling. He doesn’t say anything particularly, he doesn’t argue, but it’s clear that he resents the suggestion and is clearly annoyed by it. This, and her subsequent comments to Kojima regarding Tsuda’s physique further undermine his masculinity and you can see that even before the catalyst of Kojima’s arrival, Tsuda’s mental state is quite fraught and his rage is already simmering quietly beneath thin layer of civility that is city life.

When Kojima finally does arrive, he does so like a pathogen infecting Tsuda first at the boxing club. Tsuda brings him home (inadvertently) to his girlfriend who is then also infected with a new strain of individualism. When Tsuda visits Kojima’s apartment to confront him about making a pass at Hizaru, what he finds is a lithe, glistening, insect-like physical force. His movements are uncanny, seemingly too fast for a human yet slightly jerky and lacking in grace. Despite the fact that everyone at the gym thinks Kojima is a terrible boxer (even when he actually wins a fight everyone seems bored) he possesses  the physical strength to knock Tsuda not only across the room but through a wall. The exaggerated, manga-like violence only further intensifies Kojima’s total dominance over Tsuda. Hizaru looks on with a curious expression which seems part way between wonder and disgust at Kojima’s increasingly bug-like appearance.

As a couple, Tsuda and Hizaru seem to have a fondness for watching old, subtitled European movies of an evening – Carol Reed’s The Third Man and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Both films, of course, that have something to say about ‘the city’. In The Third Man, Harry Lime’s crimes are only possible because of the unique situation of post-war Vienna. In Metropolis, famously, the city is an organism worked by an underclass of slave workers who are little more than cogs in the machine. The city assumes part of your own personality, strips you of your individuality and replaces it with a job title. It numbs you to the finer emotions and the only way left to re-assert your existence is to open yourself up to pain. In Tokyo Fist, the city is of course Tokyo, but really it could be any city any time. Living in such a codified way etches away at your humanity until barely a husk remains as you live out the day to day demands a city makes of its people. By the end of the film, the three central characters have been through an extended battle with this ‘city tax’ but whether the result is a death of the soul or a recovery is perhaps a matter for debate.

Tokyo Fist certainly a very rich film which repays repeat viewings and is open to a great number of interpretations. Like his earlier Tetsuo: The Iron Man, the film often works on a purely sensory level and needs to be experienced rather than considered but that isn’t to say it’s without plot or action. The fight scenes are intense and frenetic, captured in Tsukamoto’s trademark style, yet the boxing scenes do also have a very authentic ring to them. Tokyo Fist is a masterpiece of modern Japanese cinema that has long been underserved by sub quality releases. This remastered HD presentation from Third Window Films, supervised by Tsukamoto himself, finally restores the film to its rightful position with a truly outstanding blu-ray release. Tokyo Fist is a hugely intriguing and important film which richly deserves a place in any collection.


Available now on blu-ray in the UK from Third Window Films!

More Tsukamoto reviews:

First published on UK Anime Network in November 2013.