Awake (Atsuhiro Yamada, 2020)

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)

The Miracle of Crybaby Shottan (泣き虫しょったんの奇跡, Toshiaki Toyoda, 2018)

Miracle of Crybaby Shottan poster 1Toshiaki Toyoda burst onto the scene in the late ‘90s with a series of visually stunning expressions of millennial malaise in which the dejected, mostly male, heroes found themselves adrift without hope or purpose in post-bubble Japan. For all their essential nihilism however, Toyoda’s films most often ended with melancholic consolation, or at least a sense of determination in the face of impossibility. Returning after a lengthy hiatus, Toyoda’s adaptation of the autobiography by shogi player Shoji “Shottan” Segawa, The Miracle of Crybaby Shottan (泣き虫しょったんの奇跡, Nakimushi Shottan no Kiseki), finds him in a defiantly hopeful mood as his mild-mannered protagonist discovers that “losing is not the end” and the choice to continue following your dreams even when everything tells you they are no longer achievable is not only legitimate but a moral imperative.

An aspiring Shogi player himself in his youth, Toyoda opens with the young Shoji discovering a love of the game and determining to turn pro. Encouraged by his surprisingly supportive parents who tell him that doing what you love is the most important thing in life, Shoji (Ryuhei Matsuda) devotes himself to mastering his skills forsaking all else. The catch is, that to become a professional shogi player you have to pass through the official association and ascend to the fourth rank before your 26th birthday. Shoji has eight chances to succeed, but in the end he doesn’t make it and is all washed up at 26 with no qualifications or further possibilities seeing as he has essentially “wasted” his adolescence on acquiring skills which are now entirely meaningless.

As his inspirational primary school teacher (Takako Matsu) tells him, however, if you spend time indulging in a passion, no matter what it is, and learn something by it then nothing is ever really wasted. Shoji’s father says the same thing – he wants his son to follow his dreams, though his brother has much more conventional views and often berates him for dedicating himself to shogi when the odds of success are so slim. It may well be “irresponsible”, in one sense at least, to blindly follow a dream to the exclusion of all else, but then again it may also be irresponsible to resentfully throw oneself into the conventionality of salaryman success.

Nevertheless, shogi is a game that drives men mad. Unlike the similarly themed Satoshi: A Move for Tomorrow, also inspired by a real life shogi star, The Miracle of Crybaby Shottan has a classically “happy” ending but is also unafraid to explore the dark sides of the game as young men fail to make the grade, realise they’ve wasted their youths, and retreat into despair and hopelessness. Shoji accepts his fate, internalises his failure, and begins to move on neither hating the game nor loving it, until finally reconnecting with his childhood friend and rediscovering his natural affinity free from ambition or desire.

Another defeated challenger, expressing envy for Shoji’s talent, told him he was quitting because you can’t win if you can’t learn to lose friends and he didn’t want to play that way. Shoji doesn’t really want to play that way either, freely giving up chances to prosper in underhanded ways and genuinely happy for others when they achieve the thing he most wants but cannot get. He does in one sense “give up” in that he accepts he will never play professionally because of the arbitrary rules of the shogi world, but retains his love of the game and eventually achieves “amateur” success at which point he finds himself a figurehead for a campaign targeted squarely at the unfair rigidity of the sport’s governing body.

Shoji’s rebellion finds unexpected support from all quarters as the oppressed masses of Japan rally themselves behind him in protest of the often arcane rules which govern the society. As his teacher told him, just keep doing what you’re doing – it is enough, and it will be OK. Accepting that “losing is not the end” and there are always second chances even after you hit rock bottom and everyone tells you it’s too late, a newly re-energised Shoji is finally able to embrace victory on equal terms carried solely by his pure hearted love of shogi rather than by ambition or resentment. A surprisingly upbeat effort from the usually melancholy director, The Miracle of Crybaby Shottan is a beautifully pitched reminder that it really is never too late, success comes to those who master failure, and being soft hearted is no failing when you’re prepared to devote yourself body and soul to one particular cause.


The Miracle of Crybaby Shottan was screened as part of the 2019 Nippon Connection Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)