Japanese cinema has gone shogi mad in recent years with biopics such as The Miracle of Crybaby Shottan and Satoshi: A Move for Tomorrow emphasising the intense toll the famously fiendish game can take on the lives of those who are determined to turn pro often studying from a young age to the exclusion of all else while at the risk of losing everything if not making the required standard before reaching the age cap after which it becomes impossible to progress. Inspired by the real life match between an AI shogi system and a professional player in 2015, Atsuhiro Yamada’s Awake is in someways no different but also suggests that true victory may lie in not giving up while progress is possible only through a process of mutual collaboration.
After opening with a brief flash forward to the climactic match between shogi prodigy Riku (Ryuya Wakaba) and his childhood friend turned programmer Eiichi’s (Ryo Yoshizawa) new AI system, the film flashes back to find the pair enrolling in the same shogi club but with very different approaches to the game. While Riku is bright and open, relishing the challenge of facing a strong opponent, Eiichi is sullen and defensive spending all his time memorising shogi strategies while failing to embrace the spirit of the game in his unwillingness to accept defeat. The pair eventually become rivals, Eiichi apparently the only player to beat Riku but losing out in the crucial game that decides who is promoted to the next rank and thereafter quitting in a huff realising that his rigid thinking is no match for Riku’s intuitive play style. Yet as their mentor suggests, Riku’s game has only improved through playing a worthy challenger like Eiichi, players learn through experience and cannot progress solely by studying the game alone.
Like The Miracle of Crybaby Shottan, Awake is clear on the toll shogi failure can take on a life as Eiichi finds himself too embarrassed to explain why he’s a couple of years late entering university though most assume it’s likely because he chose to resit his exams in the hope of getting into a more prestigious uni only to settle for this one. A socially awkward young man there appears to be little else in his life to fill hole left by his abrupt rejection of shogi itself caused by an inner insecurity that prompts him to give up rather than persevere after an unexpected setback. That’s one reason he gets hooked on the idea of programming a virtual shogi game, at once captivated by the calming sound of the voice components on the basic online version played by his dad and mystified by its seeming random play style.
In this Eiichi comes to realise that he can’t do it alone, working closely with fellow AI enthusiast Isono (Motoki Ochiai) who introduces him to open source software and explains that the code is public so that others can build on it. Riku meanwhile still a shoji prodigy struggles with everyday life and didn’t even have a PC until offered the opportunity to become the challenger to Eiichi’s Awake system. His sister had to set it up for him while he was so preoccupied that didn’t quite recognise the name of his own nephew. What he’s looking for is a kind of vindication following a setback of his own along with the novelty of another real challenge though he bears no animosity towards Eiichi and makes it clear he’s playing the robot not the man who built it.
Rather than a technophobic panic over AI, the film seems to insist it too may have its uses and that the challenge it presents to human thinking is only another opportunity for improvement even if the machine is imperfect while the player has to resort to trickery in order to beat it. The message that Eiichi gets is that failure isn’t always such a bad thing and that nothing’s ever over ’til it’s over so there’s no need to give up so easily in pure petulance. Rather than setting one player against another as villain and hero, Yamada allows the two men to rediscover a sense of mutual admiration, finally allowed to play shogi somewhere more “relaxed” remembering that it’s supposed to be “fun” as they pass the game down to the next generation in another process of mutual evolution.
Awake streams until 27th February in several territories as part of Japanese Film Festival Online 2022.
Original trailer (English subtitles)