What do a boxer and a ballerina have in common? They both understand the importance of footwork. In this case, they also have the same patron. Both will pursue their ambitions, even if it means deferring questions of love in Umetsugu Inoue’s The Winner, which screens as part of Japan’s Music Man, the Japan Society’s weekend retrospective of Inoue’s musicals.
Eikichi was a contender, but he could have been a champ had he not allowed himself to get distracted by his love for Natsuko. He now manages her father’s Ginza nightclub and tries to mold professional boxers on the side. The palooka who just got knocked out by the rank amateur Shuntaro Fuma was supposed to be his last fighter, but he signs up Fuma instead. Natsuko is not thrilled about it, but she continues to patiently wait for their long-promised marriage. However, Eikichi will have a harder time explaining why he impulsively decides to sponsor Mari Shiraki’s ballet studies, after he was forced to fire her from the club’s floor show.
The truth is, Shiraki’s relationship with her “sensei” is strictly chaste, even though she might have mixed feelings about that. Inevitably, she also meets the surly Fuma, who falls head-over-heels. So yes, it gets really complicated, but Eickichi sort of simplifies matters by insisting neither of his protégés can act on their feelings until they have achieved their goals. Cue the training montages.
Despite the Ginza setting, it would be a stretch to call The Winner a musical without the ballet sequence directly inspired by The Red Shoes. Obviously, there is a strong Venn diagram overlap between fans of the Powell & Pressburger ballet fable and boxing movies like Rocky, because The Winner was a big hit in 1957. Frankly, the tone is decidedly Runyonesque, as boxers and dancers mingle and the smart set rubs shoulders with low life thugs.
Yûjirô Ishihara turns on the punky charm as Fuma and develops some endearing chemistry with Mie Kitahara’s Shiraki. Kitahara exudes waifish vulnerability and aptly looks the part of a classically trained prima ballerina throughout the slightly surreal ballet fantasia. Yoko Minamida also brings sophistication and attitude as the chic Natsuko. Yet, it is Tatsuya Mihashi who holds it all together as driven, world weary Eickichi, boosting everyone around him. In terms of tone, think of Harrison Ford in the Sabrina remake, but with more hardbitten cynicism.
The screenwriting battery of Toru Kino, Toshio Masuda, and Isamu Onoda devise an ending that is messier and more bittersweet than the standard big title fight ending (although that is still definitely part of the mix). Of course, Inoue marinates it all in post-war style. Highly recommended, The Winner screens today and tomorrow (12/15 & 12/16), as part of the Japan Society’s Inoue musical series.