Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Japan Cuts ’17: Satoshi—A Move for Tomorrow

Shogi is to chess what cricket is to baseball. The common kinship is obvious, but to uninitiated Yanks, the rules look impenetrably random. Satoshi Murayama got it right away. The sickly prodigy always knew his time was limited, so he was in a rush to conquer the shogi world. For reasons well beyond their national passion for the game, Murayama’s underdog run for glory is a distinctly Japanese story that unfolds in Yoshitaka Mori’s Satoshi: A Move for Tomorrow (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film in New York.

Murayama’s kidney condition would be serious even if he took care of himself, but he doesn’t. Frankly, he is essentially incapable of looking after himself, but fortunately the Shogi Association takes responsibility for him when he moves to Tokyo in 1994. He was the dreaded terror of the Osaka Shogi Institute, but in Tokyo Yoshiharu Habu is the top dog (and still considered by many to be the best player ever).

Habu is also more sociable than Murayama, but that’s not saying very much. Initially, their fellow members are quite put off by his rude manners and generally weirdness. Yet, as they marvel at (and get crushed by) Murayama’s brilliant play, they come to accept his oddball persona. This is truer for Habu than anyone, but he is still the only player who can regularly beat Murayama.

This is the shogi movie you never knew you needed. The basic elements are superficially similar, including a big climatic match, but Satoshi is nothing like a Hollywood sports movie. You can see the themes Ivan Morris identified in his seminal study of classical Japanese heroes, such as Minamoto no Yoshitsune and Sugawara no Michizane. (If that’s spoilery, then consider yourself learned and well-read.)

It would be easy to make the gruff, awkward Murayama into a caricature of either an anti-social freak or a sensitive nerd, but the film and lead actor Kenichi Matsuyama never take any easy outs. Matsuyama offers no concessions in his prickly performance, but he also clearly and forcefully conveys all the insecurities that tormented Murayama. Likewise, Masahiro Higashide brings subtle dimensions to his great rival, Habu. Lily Franky radiates warmth and dignity as Murayama’s master, Nobou Mori, but it is Keiko Takeshita who really brings down the emotional hammer as Murayama’s long-suffering mother.

As big showdown matches go, Satoshi gives us one for the books—and that’s all that should be said about it. Yet, that is why the film is so distinctly bittersweet and profoundly Japanese. Highly recommended, Satoshi: A Move for Tomorrow screens this Saturday (7/15) at the Japan Society, as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.