Underdog, part 1 & part 2
Japan, 2020, 276’ (131’+145’), Japanese
Directed by: Take Masaharu
Script: Adachi Shin
Photography (color): Nishimura Hakko
Editing: Suzaki Chieko
Music: Kaida Shogo
Producers: Sato Gen, Heitai Yuji, Miyata Kotaro
Production Company: Toei Video Company Ltd.
Cast: Moriyama Mirai, Katsuji Ryo, Kitamura Takumi, Hagiwara Minori, Mizukawa Asami, Kazama Morio, Takiuchi Kumi
Date of First Release in Territory: TBA
Take Masaharu’s Underdog is the boxing film as epic. Presented in two parts, it runs for 246 minutes, not long compared with such legendary cinematic marathons as Andy Warhol’s fittingly titled Sleep (321 mins.) or Abel Gance’s monumental Napoléon (332 mins.), but an endurance test nonetheless.
And it’s worth it, though in the second half the story shades melodramatic as it moves inexorably to a climatic bout between two of the principals.
The original script is by Adachi Shin, who collaborated with Take on another boxing film, the 2014 100 Yen Love, with Ando Sakura playing a slacker-turned-boxer. Ando and Adachi both won Japan Academy awards, she for Best Actress, he for Best Script, as well as other accolades.
This time Take and Adachi give us three boxers who exemplify the Underdog title: Suenaga Akira (Moriyama Mirai), a former title contender who is now a human punching bag, Miyagi Shun (Katsuji Ryo), a failing TV comedian who sees boxing as his last chance for a show biz career, and Omura Ryuta (Kitamura Takumi), a cocky up-and-comer with a bright future, but a violent past.
Take has said in interviews that Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull has been a big influence, which is apparent in the boxing scenes. Moriyama, Katsuji and Kitamura may not be Robert DeNiro, but they give similar blood-spattered, do-or-die performances in the ring. And like De Niro, they underwent hard training for their roles (though unlike the American star, they didn’t bloat up to portray their characters’ post-boxing careers).
We first meet Moriyama’s Akira as a washed-up veteran training on cigarettes and booze for bottom-of-the-card fights while working as a driver for a deriheru (“delivery health”) call girl agency. But he has a fan in Ryuta, who tells him he saw Akira’s Japan lightweight title bout, which he lost by KO. Ryuta’s admiration for Akira’s gutsy fight in that bout, though, is mixed with contempt for what the older man has become. “Stop pissing on boxing!” Ryuta tells him, after passing his pro test with flying colors. Happy in his marriage with his now-pregnant wife (Hagiwara Minori), Ryuta is on the upswing personally and professionally.
Then Akira’s short-tempered gym manager gets him a bout with Miyagi that will be the climax of the comic’s fight-a-pro-boxer reality show. “You can smack him around,” Miyagi’s agents tell a cynically grinning Akira. Meanwhile, Miyagi is training hard not only to avoid looking like a fool in the ring, but also to show his famous actor father (Kazama Morio) that he is not a total loser.
This plot description only scratches the surface of the story, leaving out Akira’s relationships with his angry ex-wife (Mizukawa Asami), hero-worshipping young son and a sultry, hard-bitten sex worker (Takiuchi Kumi) who becomes his lover. Also, his bout with Miyagi will lead to life-changing developments for both boxers, culminating in yet another desperate battle in the ring.
Ultimately, the film’s central threesome is fighting for, not riches and fame, but redemption and self-respect. They are not latter-day samurai, but rather damaged souls, who seek to shine by beating each other to bloody pulps.
If this sounds wrong-headed, Underdog may not be for you. But in its gritty realism, in and out of the ring, it’s the best boxing film to come out of Japan in ages.
Born in Aichi Prefecture in 1967, Take Masaharu made his directorial debut in 2007 with Boy Meets Pusan, a comedy made in cooperation with the Busan (then Pusan) International Film Festival. In 2014 Take directed Unsung Hero, a drama set in the world of action stuntmen, and 100 Yen Love, a boxing film starring Ando Sakura. In 2018 Take had a box office success with We Make Antiques!, a comedy about a struggling potter and crooked art dealer who conspire to make fake masterpieces, with a sequel in 2020. The same year, Take’s two-part box epic Underdog was the opening film of the Tokyo International Film Festival.
2006 – Boy Meets Pusan
2009 – Cafe Seoul
2014 – Unsung Hero
2014 – 100 Yen Love
2018 – We Make Antiques!
2020 – We Make Antiques! Kyoto Rendezvous
2020 – Underdog, part 1 & part 2