Sport films tend to follow a fairly standard pattern, and are always good for a bit heart-string pulling in the audience. We’ve already had one sports film this year at the Japanese Film Festival in Feel the Wind, two if you count the competition performance calligraphy of Shodo Girls, both of which featured the underdog battling against the bigger competitors for the ultimate prize. Boxing films have always been at the heart of this genre, possibly due to the protagonist having to literally fight his or her way to the top. Going back to at least 1976’s Rocky and the operatic heights of Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull, it seems that strapping on the gloves and stepping into the ring is Oscar gold, with the more recent Million Dollar Baby earning four Academy Awards including Best Picture.
Box! (ボックス！), distinguishable from Richard E. Kelly’s similarly titled The Box by the handy ‘!’ at the end of the title, follows this grand tradition with the tale of two friends. When high-school student Yuki (Kengo Kora, Solanin) is rescued from some street toughs on a train by Kabu (Hayato Ichihara, Rookies), they realise that they were childhood friends prior to Yuki moving away. Reunited, Kabu convinces Yuki to join the high school boxing club, and eventually compete in regional tournaments. The most feared boxer in their weight division is Inamura (professional boxer Suwa Masashi), and it is only a matter of time before one (or both) of them must face him.
Box! follows a fairly predictable path, with a fairly set path towards the final confrontation between newcomer Yuki and his foe Inamura. By the time they meet, it isn’t so much about winning for Rocky…erm… Yuki, it is about going the distance. So the path they follow is a predictable one, but the real appeal of any sports film are the characters and their ability to illicit emotion from the audience. Kengo Kora plays completely against his terrific drifter role in Solanin, where he spent most of his energy simply existing. Here he is single-mindedly driven, although is character is similarly singular in his motivations. This isn’t really surprising when your primary foe is non-actor Masashi, whose own performance is restricted to a series of snarls and menacing (and occasionally homoerotic) stares in the direction of our two leads. Only Ichihara, as the all-brawns-no-brains Kabu, is given a bit of depth to play with, especially during his own downslide and the unresolved relationship with the terminally ill Satoko (Mitsuki Tanimura, Summer Wars).
One can be fairly certain of what they are getting when they step into the ring with Box! While this will undoubtedly garner some interest from fans of Toshio Lee and his previous cult hit Detroit Metal City, it merely remains another crowd-pleasing trip of one man going the distance.
Box! is playing at the 14th Japanese Film Festival nationally. It is due to play again at Melbourne on 6 December 2010.