BFI's 10 great Japanese boxing films
When it comes to cinema, boxing might be the most malleable sport of them all. It’s not a team sport, so you can hone in on one, maybe two main protagonists, allowing for more developed characterisation. There are fewer financial barriers to entry at a grassroots level, meaning boxing films can focus on young and/or working-class characters who are novices, with less concern for the expenses of equipment or uniforms. Its violence can mean permanent physical damage, or even death in the ring, which adds inherent drama to proceedings. And while many boxing films focus on the glory of winning, you’ll find just as many where loss is the story’s endgame. The journey to making it through can be as central as a championship victory.
Yet, the great boxing films from the English-speaking world generally flit between the same four modes: biopic, inspirational drama, social realism and documentary. Over in Japan, where boxing is incredibly popular (alongside other combat sports), things are more varied and interesting.
The Japanese professional scene has fighters of high skill levels, but it’s in the lower weight classes – less celebrated in, say, America – where the country dominates, with Japan having the third most champions in the world. As of early 2022, Japan’s produced 85 male world champions and 23 female world champions, though few have risked their titles outside of their country.
Combat sports in general are also very popular in Japanese media, particularly when it comes to action-based shonen manga and anime, many of which involve fighting tournaments both fantastical or realistic. And boxing manga titles Ashita No Joe and Hajime No Ippo are among the most influential series of any kind in the medium.
Many Japanese filmmakers, both well-known or obscure overseas, have taken the sport and used it for both recognisable and quite radical ends. Here are 10 of the best, all considerably different from one another.
Season of the Sun (1956)
Director: Takumi Furukawa
Season of the Sun is one of the inaugural examples of the so-called ‘sun tribe’ (taiyozoku) film – a subgenre named after the media’s term for the postwar generation of well-to-do teenagers who spent their days indulging their hedonistic impulses, with little concern for accepted morality. Adapted from a novel by Shintaro Ishihara – whose work also provided the basis for landmark sun-tribe film Crazed Fruit (1956) – it sees a member of a college boxing team, Tatsuya (Hiroyuki Nagato), begin to casually date Eiko (Yoko Minamida), a young woman who suggests she has similar trouble with traditional approaches to romance and familial relationships. When Eiko starts changing her attitude and expresses deeper feelings, Tatsuya responds with increased cruelty towards his on-and-off lover.
The most controversial aspects of sun-tribe films were their sensuality and representations of sex. A key scene sees Tatsuya greet Eiko in his family home, wearing nothing but a towel. After an extended silent staring match, she commands him to show her how he hits his sandbag. As Tatsuya begins furiously beating the nearby bag, Eiko watches intently, without blinking, before eventually dashing over and grabbing him. He picks her up, carries her to his room and closes the door behind them. The very next scene reveals them postcoital, Eiko still in bed. This is possibly not cinema’s only instance of a beaten punching bag being used as an implied stand-in for someone masturbating in front of their partner, but it’s very likely the first example.
The Champion (1957)
Director: Umetsugu Inoue
A dual boxing and ballet melodrama, The Champion sees a love triangle develop between Eikichi (Tatsuya Mihashi), a former hopeful boxer turned nightclub manager, and the two promising talents he becomes a benefactor for. There’s Shuntaro (Yujiro Ishihara), a boxing novice who beat Eikichi’s first apprentice (Joe Shishido) in a match he only entered to boost his tough guy credentials on the street. And there’s ballet student Mari (Mie Kitahara), whom Eikichi decides to financially support in secret after sympathising with her dream to dance in the Tokyo Ballet.
The film’s lavish sets and colours show the influence of classic musicals and dance films, particularly in one magnificent fantastical detour. Recalling Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes (1948) and Vincente Minnelli’s An American in Paris (1951) in particular, Mari’s big ballet breakthrough escapes the confines of the stage for an extended, wordless sequence. Come for the boxing, stay for the dancing. Although, the boxing material is great too.
Director: Shuji Terayama
Boxer is perhaps the most traditional feature from Shuji Terayama, a provocative avant-garde artist and filmmaker, who directed such radical films as Throw Away Your Books, Rally in the Streets (1971). Nonetheless, the ostensibly simple story – about a former champion training the upstart who accidentally killed the older man’s brother – is still among the most surreally visualised boxing films ever made, where fused rainbow colours seem to constantly bleed from the sky. You have the more standard training montages and thwarted dreams, but Terayama’s greater focus is on the punishment and dedication of the body in combat: on what someone can and can’t achieve when pushed to physical limits.
Director: Junji Sakamoto
As Raging Bull (1980) alone proves, you don’t need a good person to have an engaging boxer protagonist. A darkly comic comeback tale, Knockout provides viewers with a misogynist, homophobic mess of a former champion in Eiji Adachi, who stages an often-disastrous attempt at redemption after suffering brain damage in the ring and then proving to be the world’s worst gym chairman. In a real-life allusion, Adachi is played by Hidekazu Akai, who retired from a pro boxer career four years before the film’s release, following a brain haemorrhage.
Tokyo Fist (1995)
Director: Shinya Tsukamoto
Given that the experience of watching Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989) rattles like a barrage of punches to the face (in a good way), it’s only appropriate that the director’s Tokyo Fist would be the definitive body-horror text for the boxing movie. It sees a meek businessman (Tsukamoto himself) undergo a crisis of toxic masculinity when a childhood friend, now a boxer (Koji Tsukamoto, the director’s real-life ex-boxer brother), re-enters his life and sets his sights on the businessman’s fiancée (Kaori Fujii).
An altercation prompts the non-professional fighter to start training rigorously to get revenge, while the disrespected woman in this twisted love-hate triangle transforms herself physically and spiritually, in ways that only further expose the inadequacies of both prospective partners. Expressionistically lit, claustrophobic frames capture fluids erupting from faces and chests like geysers in this increasingly abstract though tactile tale of people who are unable to express themselves without warping their own bodies. At the same time, they furiously try to break apart those of other people – pain and violence as palpable emotional release from the structures restricting us. It would pair well with David Cronenberg’s Crash (1996).
Kids Return (1996)
Director: Takeshi Kitano
One of Takeshi Kitano’s finest works, Kids Return charts the dual journeys of two high school dropout friends. One joins the yakuza while the other goes from rookie boxer to genuine contender, only for the same susceptibility to bad influences that affected his schooldays to sabotage meaningful progression. Both the ring and life at large can chew you up, spit you out and decimate your spirit, but Kitano shows that – even if you’ve been knocked out – there’s always potential for a second chance.
Director: Toshiaki Toyoda
Many sports documentaries focus on winners, or at least inspiring, larger-than-life personalities. Unchain subverts this by spotlighting people relatively lacking in self-esteem and definitely underperforming in competition. It’s all the more compelling for presenting unfulfilled ambitions among those cast aside by society. Its initial linchpin is boxer Unchain Kaji, who retired at age 30 with an eye injury and a losing record, before director Toshiaki Toyoda expands his attention to Kaji’s boxer friends.
Tomorrow’s Joe (2011)
Director: Fumihiko Sori
When promoting directorial debut Creed III (2023), self-confessed anime nerd Michael B. Jordan discussed how Japanese animation explicitly influenced some of the staging in the latest Rocky franchise entry, with one particular cross counter moment – when opponents manage to punch each other in the face at the same time – reportedly being inspired by an episode of Naruto: Shippuden.
That move’s popularity in fighting anime and manga is said to stem from its use in the Ashita No Joe manga and its TV adaptations, of which Tomorrow’s Joe (2011) is an entertaining live-action retelling. Charting the 1960s-set rivalry between a troubled professional boxer and a slum-dwelling delinquent discovering his untapped potential for the sport, the film benefits from being directed by Fumihiko Sori, whose work has encompassed both animation and other live-action manga adaptations, namely Ping Pong (2002) and a trilogy of Fullmetal Alchemist films.
100 Yen Love (2014)
Director: Masaharu Take
Many of the best boxing films explore the physical and mental transformation required for even entry-level participation in combat. This multiple prize-winning independent feature sees Sakura Ando’s grungy, early-30s slacker character finally light a fire in her belly after a streak of life kicking her down: from disrespect from her entire family, leading to her moving out, to a sexual assault from her creepy co-worker at a 100-yen supermarket. It’s a dark underdog story, though ultimately a moving one.
Small, Slow but Steady (2022)
Director: Sho Miyake
Like 100 Yen Love, this atypical female boxer drama was also a recipient of the best actress prize at Japan’s equivalent of the Oscars. This one’s rooted in the story of real-life hearing-impaired boxer Keiko Ogasawara, loosely adapting elements of her memoir but moving her early-career doubts in confidence to the Covid-19 era. Anchored by a remarkable performance from Yukino Kishii, the low-key tale is less about victory than it is about the how and why of fighting in the first place, especially when the pandemic’s decimation of small businesses like local gyms makes it even harder for someone with such perceived disadvantages, compared to other fighters, to navigate any significant progression.