泣き虫しょったんの奇跡 「Nakimushi Shottan no Kiseki」
Release Date: September 07th, 2018
Duration: 127 mins.
Director: Toshiaki Toyoda
Writer: Ayako Kato (Screenplay), Shoji Segawa (Autobiographical Novel)
Starring: Ryuhei Matsuda, Yojiro Noda, Shota Sometani, Satoshi Tsumabuki, Takako Matsu, Kiyohio Shibukawa, Kaoru Kobayashi, Jun Miho, Jun Kunimura, Tatsuya Fujiwara, Itsuji Itao, Shizuka Ishibashi, Issey Ogata, Kento Nagayama,
Considering 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 can’t, he must quit and go back into the real world and 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 from outside of the structure of ranked battles in academies and so begins the truly inspirational battle on and off the board.
Throughout the film Toshiaki Toyoda’s direction is superlative when it comes to translating the drama on and around the shogi board to the screen as 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 all of which will sweep along people watching the film.
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 played by Yojiro Endo, the old master who regrets coming to the game too late as played by Issey Ogata, the quietly cocky pro played by 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 display the dramatic chops to do the tearful scenes, his portrayal of a good-natured character is charming enough to relate his passion for the game and acts as the stable centre for the film’s supporting characters to orbit as well as someone audiences will root for as we wait for that miracle to happen…
The cast list is filled with major actors appearing in minor roles, some of whom like Ryuhei Matsuda and Kiyohiko Shibukawa have appeared in Toshiaki’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 in a tearjerker of an emotional climax. 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 and, like the teacher who encouraged Shoji to pursue his love, it will urge audiences to keep going.
Whether you know the game of shogi or not, whether you know about the career of Shoji Segawa or not, the film tells a universal story and makes all the right moves to make the audience care and the ending is a checkmate when it comes to uplifting content.
My review for this film was first published on July 17th on VCinema
It plays at Japan Cuts in New York on July 27th