Japan, 2021, 107’, Japanese
Directed by: Yoshida Keisuke
Script: Yoshida Keisuke
Photography (color): Shida Takayuki
Editing: Seino Hideki
Music: Kamimura Shuhei
Producers: Okada Makoto, Kimura Toshiki
Executive Producer: Kato Kazuo
Cast: Matsuyama Kenichi, Kimura Fumino, Emoto Tokio, Higashide Masahiro
Date of First Release in Territory: April 9th, 2021
Boxing movies are typically marketed on their authenticity. Thus the stories in the media about how hard the actors trained, how the director tried to make in the ring action look real. One template is Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980), in which the sport’s raw brutality was captured with blood-spattered clarity.
Japanese films with boxer heroes are no exceptions, save for ones that, like Tomorrow’s Joe (2011), take place in manga-land with no pretense to realism. But what these films so often elide, and what Yoshida Keisuke’s Blue gets so chillingly and brilliantly right is the price so many boxers pay in brain damage and its attendant effects, early onset dementia among them.
And yet the film, which Yoshida also scripted referencing his own three decades of involvement with the sport, is not an exposé with an anti-boxing message. In fact, it is something of a celebration that gives even non-fans a clearer understanding as to why boxers who experience the sport’s downsides, from injured brains to ruined future prospects, keep doing it – and loving it – just the same. This in-the-round approach can also be found in Yoshida’s other work, such as the 2016 drama Himeanole, which revealed the damaged child inside the deranged killer. But Blue is a career peak.
It focuses on two childhood friends who became professional boxers: Urita Nobuto (Matsuyama Kenichi), who knows the sport inside out, but keeps losing his bouts, and Ogawa Kazuki (Higashide Masahiro), who has the physical tools and relentless drive that his nice-guy pal lacks, but is starting to show signs, from memory loss to brain fog, of punch-drunkenness. All of this and more bothers his loyal-but-perceptive fiancée Chika (Kimura Fumino), who has known both men since they were kids – and knows they should call it quits. There is also Narazaki Tsuyoshi (Emoto Tokio) a clownish pachinko parlor employee who joins Urita and Ogawa’s gym to learn some cool-looking moves he can use to intimidate unruly customers and impress a ditzy female co-worker. He is soon brought up short by the gym’s regulars, though a smiling Urita tells he threw a “good combo” in an otherwise disastrous sparring bout. Thus encouraged, Narazaki begins to train seriously, as the goofball gives way to a new, committed persona. Meanwhile, Urita and Ogawa reach make-or-break moments in their own careers, with the latter aiming for what is probably his last chance at a Japan welterweight crown.
The film’s worth, however, lies less in its will-he-win-the-big-bout plot, more in its knowing portrayal of the Japanese boxing world, in which even a title contender like Ogawa drives a delivery truck to make ends meet and a skilled instructor like Urita is belittled by a housewife student for persisting as what she considers a dead-end job. Also, instead of the surface realism seen in so many boxing epics, the film shows how the techniques Urita painstakingly teaches Narazaki and others work in the ring with a real opponent. I’d heard boxing described as “the sweet science” countless times, but the fights in Blue, all choreographed by Yoshida himself, are the first I’ve seen that bring the “science” part to life.
Meanwhile Higashide portrays Ogawa’s descent with a harrowing realism and Matsuyama reveals the pain behind Urita’s smiling mask with precision and power that never begs for sympathy.
But for reasons I shouldn’t explain, at the credits crawl I was smiling, despite everything. Blue chased the pandemic blues away.
Yoshida Keisuke (b. 1975) graduated from the Tokyo Visual Arts film school. In 2006 he made his directorial debut with the youth drama Raw Summer. After that, he continued to work on lighting crews while writing a novel that he later filmed as the quirky father-daughter comedy Café Isobe (2008). Other films featured female protagonists and comic elements. His 2016 Himeanole, a drama/thriller illustrating how youthful bullying can have homicidal consequences, was an Udine FEFF selection. His latest is the boxing drama Blue, which was based on his own three-decade association with the sport.
2005 – Raw Summer
2006 – The Contents of the Desk
2008 – Cafe Isobe
2010 – Triangle
2013 – Mugiko-san to
2013 – The Workhorse & the Bigmouth
2014 – Silver Spoon
2016 – Himeanole
2021 – Blue