Here’s a movie pitch which may not grab you: Poetry Angel is a film about a farmer and a schoolgirl in small-town Japan seeking a way to express themselves through the art of “Poetry Boxing.”
Everything up until “Poetry Boxing” may sound mundane since films about self-expression are common but for his sophomore title, writer-director Toshimitsu Iizuka has cannily hitched his succinct and sweet human drama to the relatively unknown real-life sport of Poetry Boxing and strikes gold with results so entertaining you may want to step into the ring yourself.
If you have never heard of Poetry Boxing before, you’re not alone. Despite having been established in Japan since the late ‘90s with nationwide events and championships, it has yet to hit the mainstream. The name itself says it all. Imagine a poetry slam that takes place in a boxing ring but something more free-form as competitors are allowed to express themselves not just through poetry (haiku, tanka etc.) but through manga, music, mime, rapping and many more methods. The aim of the game is for poets to win over a crowd through three-minute performances full of passionate self-expression. It’s a sport that thrives on creativity and has attracted competitors from all levels of society from students to housewives, salarymen to retirees. All find themselves benefiting from participating by becoming better able to communicate.
As you can probably guess from the previous paragraph, this provides fertile ground for the film to gather together a rich and diverse cast of characters and it is also a unique sport that has yet (as far as this writer knows) to be touched by other films anywhere else in the world.
Operating without much indication of a plot, the movie follows two likeable central protagonists, Tamaki (Amane Okayama), a 21-year-old who lives and works on his parent’s plum farm, and An (Rena Takeda), a high school girl who is a boxer in the traditional sense of being an athlete. He has dreams of being a writer of some sort but cannot really express himself while she is someone who struggles with a secret that prevents her from making friends. Through awkward encounters and stumbling steps towards self-expression, both find friendship and support in the newly established local Poetry Boxing club where a cast of down-to-earth but amusing and idiosyncratic characters add some more likeable personalities to the story.
Audiences familiar with Japanese films will recognise the seasoned character actors who take on the roles. Doi Koji (Tateto Serizawa) is a rapper who uses a fusion of rap and poetry to keep it real. Chieko Itaya (Maho Yamada) is a quiet woman desperate to blossom into a colourful social butterfly and make friends. Jinjiro Nakajima (Atom Shimojo) is a pensioner with lots of free time who enjoys writing poetry. Their leader, Shuntaro Hayashii (Akihiro Kakuta), is a high-energy guy who works at city hall and deals with customer complaints. With completely different backgrounds, different motivations for being in the club, and different personalities, they have a great chemistry together and they provide a lot of natural and amusing comedy of a deadpan character-driven variety that eschews being bizarre and hits all the right notes while demonstrating how Poetry Boxing helps them grow as individuals. Perhaps the biggest advertisement for the benefits of the sport being beneficial for people’s communication skills is the character development of Tamaki and An.
The central protagonist’s character arcs are cleanly established and their development through poetry competitions is unforced and quite natural, easy to relate to and given a pleasingly satisfying end. The two flow through the ups and downs of their everyday lives without melodrama. Their existential angst and fear of social embarrassment, muddled communication and unfocussed yearning to find a place in society provides an easy to relate to impetus for them to participate in and learn from Poetry Boxing. It all feels touchingly real and while the drama is small-scale stuff, it still matters and feels fresh because of the setting and the winning performances of Okayama and Takeda.
Okayama’s fantastic facial expressions and comic reactions to events are utterly charming without the need to mug for the camera. He stays completely in character even when the camera isn’t focussed on him as his physical movement is full of tics that tell of her nervousness and happiness such as when he shakes his legs just before his performance and the beaming smile he has when things go right and the sense of joy he has when his creativity enables him understand what his true treasure in life is. Takeda is equally wonderful despite not having as many lines of dialogue. Due to her secret, she is character defined by stillness and silence (and punching skills). It is hard not to be sucked into the deep brown wells of her beautiful eyes or feel nervous at the sight of a tightly drawn face as she expresses anxieties over being asked out of her comfort zone. The longing gaze that she has when she sees others having fun and she wants to join in, the look of pleasure when she is invited in. It’s all potent stuff. When she does speak about what holds her back, audiences will be sure to shed a tear.
Iizuka uses smart visual skills to capture all of this emotional drama while making the action in and out of the boxing ring fun to watch. The texture of the film is warm, sunny and inviting with wide shots placing the characters in their natural environment, a lovely little coastal town just discovering the joys of Poetry Boxing. Iizuka frames everything in a clean and manner and establishes a comfortable and sprightly rhythm through editing which benefits the acting and gives the film a punchy pace. Lots of medium shots and close-ups show the characters facial expressions and body language which changes with every training montage and performance and careful use of close-ups delivers the drama and satisfaction the actors are conveying. This may be Iizuka’s sophomore film but the confidence with which he delivers everything makes it feel like he has been in the movie industry for a lot longer.
Perhaps this is the first poetry boxing film. It certainly seems like an authentic look at the sport and its benefits and it features Katsunori Kusunoki, the current organiser and president of the Japan Reading Boxing Association, and a video recording of a match. If Poetry Boxing is a mainly Japanese phenomenon it has every chance of going global, just like this joyful film, which should appeal to a wide audience thanks to its well-developed characters and charming sunny setting.
Poetry Angel will be shown on March 6 and 9 at the Osaka Asian Film Festival 2017.