Avant-garde poet, theatre practitioner, filmmaker and countercultural figure Shuji Terayama often insisted that more could be learned of life in the boxing halls of Shinjuku than in any book. He was as well known as a boxing commentator as he was for his artistic work and once helped to organise an ironic funeral for the antagonist of a boxing manga who died in the ring having dealt the hero, who in Terayama’s eyes embodied the revolutionary desires of contemporary youth, a crushing defeat.
Most closely associated with poetic avant-garde masterpieces such as Pastoral Hide and Seek, Farewell to the Ark, and the anarchic youth drama Throw Away Your Books, Rally in the Streets which also features boxing, Boxer is Terayama’s sole foray into the world of mainstream filmmaking. Actor Bunta Sugawara, then a key star at Toei thanks to his association with jitsuroku or “true account” gangster pictures such as the Battles Without Honour and Humanity cycle along with the hugely successful Truck Yaro action-comedy series, had wanted to star in a boxing picture for some time but the wisdom of the contemporary film industry was that sports movies were no longer popular. With the success of Rocky on its Japanese cinema release, studio heads began to change their minds. Sugawara took on the role of the mentor Hayato alongside studio protege Kentaro Shimizu whose popularity with female audiences they hoped would open up a new demographic as aspiring challenger Tenma. It was Sugawara who recruited Terayama to direct knowing of his love of boxing and promising him the opportunity to shake up the contemporary film industry which Terayama accepted excited by the possibilities of creating a new cinema through the meeting of commercial film and the experimental.
Nevertheless, based on a script originally penned by Fumio Ishimori but given a full overhaul by Terayama and playwright Rio Kishida, Boxer is the most accessible of the films Terayama directed with its relatively straightforward narrative centring on the complex relationship between a jaded former champion and the young contender he holds responsible for his brother’s death. Hayato abruptly quit boxing during a match he was certain to win and now lives a lonely life with his beloved dog in a rundown boarding house. Tenma, by contrast, is an angry young man whose dreams of boxing glory are dashed when he’s barred from the ring on account of an injured foot. Though they should be enemies, what the two men discover is an unexpected solidarity in shared struggle against existential despair.
A guest at the strange bar Tenma frequents, which seems to exist as a place out of time trapped in the carefree possibility of the 1920s, describes boxing as boring or at least not for poor people and there is something of a sense of futility in the men’s desire to fight. The force Hayato uses to motivate Tenma is hatred, a pure desire to rebel against life’s unfairness screaming at him to get up from the mat if he is a man who refuses to be a loser. Yet Hayato quit boxing because he realised his victory was meaningless. Terayama casts the ring as a space of existential struggle, opening with a dreamlike sequence in black and white in which a boxer walks towards the light while defeated challengers pass him in the other direction one on a hospital gurney clearly close to death. The match opens with a minute’s silence for a former boxer who has passed away, while Hayato later retells the stories of champions who died small and ignominious deaths through typhus in a prisoner of war camp, drowned, found under a bridge, hit by a train, or taking their own lives after getting revenge on the yakuza. No matter how hard you fight, he seems to say, we all die in the end. If you punch someone in the street, that’s assault, according to one very snappily dressed gentleman, but if you do it in the ring it’s competition. Violence is absurd, but it’s also the only way for a man like Tenma to know he’s alive, fighting for his life and refusing to give in to the forces intent on crushing his spirit.
Terayama too struggles against the confines of mainstream filmmaking but retains much of his trademark avant-garde aesthetic in his frequent use of colour filters and incongruous production design such as in the art deco architecture of the photo studio where Hayato falls asleep as his brother and his fiancée take their wedding photos or the warm and cosy anarchy of the neighbourhood bar which seems to be peopled by those whose dreams have already died along with chickens on the lam and tobacco-smoking children. While young women leave suitcases in hand in search of a better future, men like Tenma never escape the ring but continue to fight for their way out in a frustrated battle with existential futility and the maddening hopelessness of the contemporary society.
By Hayley Scanlon.
Hayley Scanlon is a freelance film writer and editor of East Asian cinema website Windows on Worlds.