Boxing films quite often are bleak portrayals of corruption, fighting against the odds, getting pushed too far and the hardship of defeat. Keisuke Yoshida's "Blue" is no exception in that respect, focusing on the lives of three of boxing's losers. But all at different levels of experience and skill, they are all losers for very different reasons.
The title refers to the blue corner of the ring reserved for the challengers, and these are three boxers facing different challenges. Narazaki (Tokio Emoto) is a weakling working at a pachinko parlour. Living with his grandmother, he has few prospects in life and humiliation at the hands of a high school punk is enough to force him to take action. He joins a gym with the sole purpose of looking like he knows how to fight, but his timid manner makes him struggle to actually throw a punch.
Veteran Urita (Kenichi Matsuyama) takes him under his wing and starts to coach him. But Urita is a man with his own problems in that he is a cereal loser in the ring, having only won two bouts in his career. Urita loves boxing, but seems to take comfort in regular defeat. He could perhaps win the odd fight, but despite his efforts, he seems content to lose yet again. This sees him gain both the respect and contempt of his colleagues at the gym.
Urita isn't just a loser in boxing, but also in love, with long-term friend Chika (Fumino Kimura) now the love interest for Ogawa (Masahiro Higashide), the gym's prize fighter with a genuine shot at a championship belt. Friends with Urita, Ogawa may be a good fighter, but it's taking its toll on his body, suffering from regular lapses in memory and concentration. Chika wants Urita to talk Ogawa into quitting, but both know it isn't quite as easy as that.
Boxing films are common, but also difficult to get right; needing to find the right balance between realism and entertainment. And Yoshida does an admirable job, letting fights pack a punch, but also see a fair few missed swings. The atmosphere of the crowd and the coaches' shouts make fights feel like they are happening in real-time, as workers let-off steam for an evening. But while all three are shown to have day-jobs, perhaps a little more focus on these would add to the fact that these are not out-and-out professionals, but mere men having to exert themselves after a day's work.
But the concerns are all very real, particularly for Ogawa. Still a young man, the long-term impact of boxing isn't something he wants to concern himself with, though on a daily basis the signs start to appear. But, a man with talent - who is obviously getting breaks put his way at work due to his side-line - the thrill of becoming a champion is his only focus. Yoshida shows these a very small traits creeping in: forgetting where he left his shorts; confusion in speech, but Chika can see these are life-long problems she will have to deal with.
Matsuyama is charming as Urita, the perennial loser who does so with a smile in the knowledge he will be back again for more. A calm presence around the gym, he is a confidant, a mentor and instructor for a middle-aged women's boxercise class. He brings the gym no credit with his performances, but he is the glue that holds it together. A man who loves, but is shown he is content to lose.
Less easy to take is Emoto's Narazaki. While likeable enough in his bumbling, his switches in the ring from overly-timid to aggressive, skilled fighter happen with barely a flicker, and make his character less believable.
Despite keeping the balance in the fights, Yoshida does slip into age-old boxing clichés. Musical montages eventually pop-up in the build-up to the finale, as if felt obliged to include them; and stabs of timely uplifting music work to remove a lot of hard work and feel far from rewarding.
But that said, Yoshida doesn't allow "Blue" to be a complete loser, and there are enough hits on show to give this at least a victory on points.