The Miracle of Crybaby Shottan (Japan, 2018) [JAPAN CUTS 2019]

Considering that Toshiaki Toyoda made his entry into Japanese films with low-budget punk titles about outsiders like Pornostar (1998), seeing him take on a film about shogi, or Japanese chess, is something of a surprise until you find out that he initially trained in shogi as a child. That, and the lead character of this biopic, the titular crybaby Shoji (Shottan) Segawa, was an outsider and trailblazer himself when he became a shogi professional well past the age when it is acceptable.

Based on a true story, we follow the life of Shoji Segawa (Ryuhei Matsuda) from childhood to the moment he breaks into the professional game. He exhibits a skill and passion for shogi as a young boy and with the support of his gentle father (Jun Kunimura) and an inspirational teacher (Takako Matsu) he begins the journey to go from amateur to pro. What this entails is foregoing high school and joining an academy where he plays and learns but there is a catch: he must hit the rank of fourth dan by the age of 26 to become professional and get paid to play. If he fails to do so, he must quit and go back to the real world to start his life over again.

And so the audience becomes aware of a clock ticking as we see Shoji play an increasingly dwindling number of games and failing. Despite his passion he finds he doesn’t quite have the drive to dominate the board and all the while his peers progress or drop out while some important figures in his life pass away to the next life altogether.

During this period of play, many audience members will recognise the patterns of procrastination and emotional displacement Shoji displays as time draws to an end and when he eventually misses his moment to shine and finds his time might be over it proves to be no shock but a disappointment. After the bitter pronouncements of, “Why didn’t I try harder? I had all the time in the world” the film charts his comeback, much of it orchestrated in the face of opposition from the Shogi Federation who resent Shoji trying to break into the game outside of the structure of ranked battles in academies. And so begins the truly inspirational battle on and off the board

Throughout the film, Toyoda’s direction is superlative when it comes to translating the drama on and around the shogi board to the screen. He keeps the camera tracking across the pieces and players, lacing around onlookers in the arena and cutting to people across the nation as they watch via television, often using close-ups on faces and bodies to deliver the psychological stress on everyone invested in the game as an insistent rock guitar plays out its driving rhythm on the soundtrack.

The drama in Shoji’s wider life proves to be quite affecting as we come to know him and the world he inhabits and the film becomes just as much about the people around Shoji and the passion and care they invest in him and the game. There are countless examples like best friend and fellow shogi fan Yuya (Yojiro Endo), the old master who regrets coming to the game too late (Issey Ogata), the quietly cocky pro played (Shota Sometani) to the influential father and teacher who encouraged Shoji and gave him the positive affirmation he needed to pursue his passion. While Matsuda doesn’t quite have the dramatic chops to do the tearful scenes, his portrayal of a good-natured character is charming enough. He acts as the stable centre for the film’s supporting characters to orbit as well as someone audiences will root for as they wait for that miracle to happen.

The cast list is filled with major actors appearing in minor roles, some of whom like Matsuda appeared in Toyoda’s earlier films like Blue Spring (2002), and everyone acquits themselves perfectly to create a chorus of voices urging Shoji to push himself towards his dream. The ending is a fine moment of release and the overall message of the film, and Shoji’s example, is that pursuing a passion leads to happiness. It’s a healing message in a way as it shows perseverance is a skill.

Whether you know the game of shogi or not, whether you know about the career of Shoji Segawa or not, this film tells a universal story. The Miracle of Crybaby Shottan makes all the right moves and the uplifting ending is cinematic checkmate.

The Miracle of Crybaby Shottan will be shown at JAPAN CUTS 2019 on July 27.