TOKYO – Masaharu Take’s films have always focused on painful stories about Japan's “under-class,” people who are often overlooked in a nation stereotyped as monolithically well-to-do.
The heroes of his latest work, “Underdog,” couldn’t be more beaten down, stoically hardworking yet hopelessly under-class: They are boxers.
“Most of them will lose. Most of them will never become champions,” said Take, who is also directing the Netflix hit “The Naked Director.”
“I feel an adoration for those boxers, their strength, the courage that they have, that I don’t have, and that’s what I’ve been imagining and thinking about.”
Take, who loved Sylvester Stallone’s “Rocky” and was profoundly influenced by “Raging Bull,” directed by Martin Scorsese, scored success six years ago with “100 Yen Love,” which also had boxing as a motif. It starred a clumsy introverted woman who finds purpose and pride, as well as physical fitness, through boxing.
“When we thought about what was the most brutal sport we could put the character through, we came up with boxing,” he told The Associated Press recently.
Take (pronounced TUH-kay) returns to the boxing theme with a vengeance with “Underdog,” a grueling work telling not just one but three stories of boxers over nearly five hours.
Dancer Mirai Morimoto gives an all-out performance as the washed out formerly No. 1 ranked Akira, gaining muscle as well as fighter moves for the role. A comedian, played by Ryo Katsuji, gets serious for the first time in life when a TV producer’s idea of entertainment is to pit him against a real boxer. Takumi Kitamura portrays a reformed delinquent whose dream is to fight Akira.
“Underdog” premieres as the opener for the Tokyo International Film Festival, which starts Saturday and runs through Nov. 9.
The three protagonists’ gut-wrenching tales of struggle and emotional loss drive the plot, and the fights in the ring work like cathartic celebrations of Take’s filmmaking. The men are all born losers, despite their championship dreams. But the film shows defeat sometimes can be glorious.
The festival’s screenings will be socially distanced among other coronavirus measures, and a scaled-down red-carpet gala will stream online.
The festival also features the Cannes Jury Prize-winning director Koji Fukada screening several of his films, including his latest, “The Real Thing,” his first adaptation of a comic book, and an official selection at Cannes.
Fukada says independent Japanese filmmakers have a hard time, even those collecting accolades abroad. Japanese government support for films is minimal, he said, a fraction of the funding in South Korea or France. Theaters in Japan are controlled by major studios looking for blockbusters. In contrast, South Korea and France pool a portion of ticket sales to support independent filmmaking.
“Japan has no systemic way to support the film industry,” Fukada told reporters recently at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Tokyo.
Take agrees making films in Japan is so difficult he fears the best actors and crew will flee to working abroad. He found the environment for working for Netflix, in contrast, wonderful.
Take acknowledged “The Naked Director,” whose hero makes pornography films, has been slammed as misogynist but he defended the work as “a challenge” to raise questions.
“It’s a challenge to depict how women have been oppressed. We want to show more respect for the women,” said Take.
He stressed the main character had respect for the actresses, and the second season, which he is working on now, will show “how despicable and ignorant all the men were.”
“This is such a worthwhile, and very difficult, challenge. We may get criticized, but films should not avoid this challenge. And they can’t be made otherwise,” Take said.
Yuri Kageyama is on Twitter at https://twitter.com/yurikageyama