Blue (Japan, 2021) [JFTFP 2022]

The violent bloody sport of men’s boxing has always been intertwined with an aspirational ideal of creating the desirable virile male body. The player’s sense of self-worth and manliness, to be supremely attractive to women and men are intrinsically tied to this sport. Predictably it also becomes a justified outlet for male rage and angst, especially in film.

Enter young lad Tsuyoshi Narazaki (Tokio Emoto), in Keisuke Yoshida’s Blue, who has absolutely no interest in boxing whatsoever but is cunningly coaxed by his co-worker who he is interested in. Terribly conscious of his image, a weakling who can be physically easily bullied by middle schoolers, he hesitantly walks into the local boxing gym. The gym is surprisingly casual as Nobuto Urita (Kenichi Matsuyama) is sparring with an old man in the ring. No boisterous young men pounding at each other practice boxing welcome Narazaki. Urita seems jaded and understandingly agrees to Narazaki’s request – all he wants to do is learn a few stylish boxing poses to appear cool and strong to others.

This paves way for an engrossing first hour. Yoshida writes this part of the film as a series of short scenes that brilliantly, vividly lay out the toxically charged world of the romantic triangle between Urita and his childhood best friends Chika Amano (Fumino Kimura) and Kazuki Ogawa (Masahiro Higashide) and how boxing has come to shape their relationships with themselves and others. Visually, the worlds of the protagonists unfold in a surprisingly light-footed fleeting style. Scenes are very briefly crafted and Yoshida drops one revelation after another in every one, expecting the viewer to willingly play catch up and join the dots.

Matsuyama and Higashide are two very handsome actors, aptly cast as Yoshida refuses to dwell on their attractiveness. During the first half, their times in the boxing ring are stunningly cut off, one doesn’t get to see how they use and show off their physicalities. Their photogenic faces are at times offhandedly obscured even as they speak, and they seem sad, hollowed out figures in the dark shadows of the night. In placing them as simply one of the boxers in training, they are made to flit in and out of the screen as mere practicing figures. In a very welcoming way, the old patron of the gym, his assistant trainers are given as much weight in their characterizations, sensibly grounding the overbearing hyper masculine world of this sport. Matsuyama does rely less on his good looks in his various roles, Higashide much less so, and his introduction, even as he is ‘the boxing talent’, is so brazen it surprises as much as it immediately feels right.

Urita has debased himself, literally making himself a punching bag, losing nearly every boxing match yet insistent to continue practicing and competing. It is humiliating but the patron is kind and supports him unconditionally. He is either hanging on to his present ways to be in close contact with Amano or detests himself too much to make a positive turn in life. The boxing arena becomes the outlet for his self-harming energies, as he teaches senior citizens and young male twenty somethings, neither giving him any basic respect. He good-naturedly laughs it all off or in calm ripostes carries on. Yoshida uproots the typical male superiority drama that usually unfolds. Narazaki’s great reluctance to spar and become a real boxer in contrast with an aggressive, overly eager fellow gymer is a side track that becomes a lesson in making boxing a sport devoid of rage and entitlement. His realisation of his natural skill for the sport is delightful to watch unfold as he retains his awkward meekness. A passive, young man loathe to violence and combat, boxing becomes a way for him to be physically active, in kind control of his body. Emoto is a natural, his comedic timing impeccable, and in Blue his character is the positive anchor the film could not do without.

As Ogawa and Urita meet on the eve of the Japanese Super Welterweight Championship match, Yoshida’s script takes a sudden turn to incite permanent change in the trio’s world unexpectedly taking the viewer back to the scene Blue opened with. This dawning realization of the presence of time shifts in the narrative and the elegant turn to the present is a smooth lead-in for the characters to change, quietly realizing the others’ true significances in their lives. Yoshida ridding the inherent impression that boxing creates the aggressive alpha male, in and out of the ring, draws plain focus to the physical talent the sport asks for. This is all that remains valuable for Narazaki, Urita and Ogawa even as Ogawa’s life takes a grim turn.

That the sport of boxing, rough and pointless that it is, could be removed from this negative framework and be simply considered an aside, a mere showcase of specific physical skills is a rare cinematic expression. Keisuke Yoshida’s Blue is a much-needed thematic subversion in this oversaturated genre, remarkably accomplishing this in a deceptively understated style.

Blue is showing as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme from February 4 to March 31.