ACA Cinema Project — which organised the recent “Flash Forward” film series at Japan Society — returns with the theatrical release of Blue, directed by Keisuke Yoshida showing at New York’s IFC Center.
The filmmaker who was named ‘The Master of Psychological Drama’ and was honoured with a special Director in Focus programme at 2021’s Tokyo International Film Festival, reunites on-screen Kenichi Matsuyama, Masahiro Higashide and Fumino Kimura, since they last acted together in Yoshitaka Mori’s Satoshi: A Move for Tomorrow.
Yoshida’s Blue is an enticing parable of life’s intricacies and unexpected turns, that drive individuals off the track they had designed for themselves. Inspired by the filmmaker’s real-life boxing experience, audiences are catapulted into a cosmos of uncertainty, where the dedication of athletes often goes unrewarded.
The destiny of two childhood friends is deeply intertwined by their path as professional boxers: Urita Nobuto (Matsuyama Kenichi), knows the sport inside out, but keeps losing his competitions, and Ogawa Kazuki (Higashide Masahiro), has the physical skills and relentless drive to win, but his brain condition is affecting his performance and day-to-day life. Urita’s first love Chika (Fumino Kimura) is now engaged to Ogawa putting to the test the interpersonal relationships between the two boxers, also because she has acknowledged that they should both quit the sport for their own good.
Besides this latent love triangle, there are two more characters who enrich the drama with the same malcontent derived from the sport. The first is Narazaki Tsuyoshi (Emoto Tokio), a clownish pachinko parlour employee who joins Urita and Ogawa’s gym to impress his female colleague. The second is Doguchi, a trainee whose ambitious aspirations in the boxing realm get shattered all of a sudden. Narasaki’s path, begins as an adult version of The Karate Kid. He is a wholesome ingenue who wants to master the Flicker Jab, like manga character Hajime No Ippo, whilst also looking after an ageing grandmother. Doguchi, instead, starts off as an entitled and confident pupil whose certainties fall apart when he ends up hospitalised.
Tears, toil, sweat, attest the efforts of the aspiring boxers, but to no avail; dreams are annihilated by the bitter irony of unfulfillment. None of the characters achieve their aspirations. Despite Blue is on par with Western boxing films, like the Rocky Saga or Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull, Yoshida’s film epitomises the downsides of sports. In fact, all the athletes in the story, sooner or later, get relegated to the “blue corner,” i.e. the part of the Japanese boxing ring assigned to the lower-ranked boxer…one could say the potential loser. This marks a rather unconventional take on the sports genre, that habitually portrays the protagonists’ long suffered struggle leading to a much deserved championship. Whilst we are accustomed to Western tales of success, the Oriental filmmaker brings justice to all those who fail, and whose stories of crumpled future prospects remain untold.
The main social actors presented in this dynamic are driven by motivations that initially seem different, but ultimately all end up in the inability to bid farewell to the noble art. Urita is aware of his limits and prefers to excel as a coach, since he fails to win the competitions.
He will eventually abandon mentoring; but although the man is taken out of the ring, the glove game cannot be taken out of the man.
Ogawa tries not to surrender to the frailty of his body that is slowly collapsing. His love for Chika pushes him to smother his passion, that nevertheless does not abandon him. Narasaki’s initial motivation to come across as a boxer to wow his crush, evolves into utter dedication to the sport that grows one punch at a time, although it won’t lead him as far as he wishes. Ultimately, Doguchi hides his insecurity behind an arrogant facade.
He has the certitude that an amateur like him can become a pro in no time, but gets confronted with a merciless reality.
All four think they can beat life to the punch, but actually receive their blows…below the belt (pun intended). Pugilism does not lead them far, and they all end up on the ropes (pun intended again!). In fact, English-speaking viewers, won’t help but think how the mood of the drama is in line with its the title: blue.
Final Grade: B—