In the Western cinematic scopes, we can find a number of chess-themed sports films and biopics, but there is a mere handful of productions that feature the Japanese cousin of the popular board game: shogi, known also as ‘Japanese chess’; a sport that has, since its 16th century beginnings, evolved into one of the most popular Japanese professional sports. The top shogi players hold a celebrity status; every year, there are seven shogi tournaments where the players battle it out to earn the best possible titles or fight to hold on to their ranks, required to keep them in the game that both brings the prestige and puts the food on the table.
Just like every other sport, the world of shogi also has its own legends. One such legend is Habu Yoshiharu, who became a professional shogi player at the age of 14 and has (as of 2014) won over 1300 matches; he also holds several shogi world records. Another shogi legend is Satoshi Murayama, who was posthumously awarded the highest shogi rank – 9th dan. Satoshi, a charismatic yet withdrawn prodigy who had faced off Habu himself several times, most notably in the famous “Habu in the east, Murayama in the west” match, despite his efforts never succeeded to truly surpass his rival due to his tragic fate: he succumbed to cancer in 1998, when he was only 29 years old. His tragic, but inspiring story was made into a novel that found its way into the arms of director Mori Yoshitaka and after almost a decade, it received a film adaptation under his direction – Satoshi: A Move for Tomorrow (Mori, 2016) earned its right to close the 2016 Tokyo International Film Festival.
In the film, we follow Satoshi from his early life, when as a weak-bodied child, he is diagnosed with the rare nephrotic syndrome; the young genius focuses all of his passion away from what makes him weak and effectively closes his mind away from his body; despite constant medical difficulties and with a complete disregard for his body – being a heavy drinker and eater – he lives and breathes for shogi; his standoffish charisma and his unpredictable moves set him on a tangent that leads straight into the top ranks, until he is faced with the brutal truth: in the battle of mind over matter, even with utter defiance, sometimes, it is not the brilliant mind, but the weak matter that wins. But that does not mean that he is merely resigned to his fate. In Satoshi’s mind, his ultimate fate is not death, but reaching the highest shogi rank. With only months left to live, he chooses to ignore the bladder cancer diagnosis and refuses treatment since it would influence his ability to play; and as his health rapidly deteriorates, he pushes himself beyond all limits, until he once more faces his arch rival Habu in what is to become one of the most legendary shogi matches of all time.
Satoshi: A Move for Tomorrow stars the popular Japanese actor Matsuyama Kenichi as the titular character; there is no doubt that this is the most difficult role that the young actor ever took on, and it has resulted in his most stellar performance to date. Besides gaining a lot of weight for the role, Matsuyama put in a lot of effort also to brush up the very finesses of the character – not only studying shogi in general, but he also had to master the hand movement to pass off as a professional player. What really shines in the film is Matsuyama’s ability to convey all the inner turmoil, raw ambition and pain of his character, where most of the time, only a little is said and only a bit more is implied; having a normal life was not written in Satoshi’s stars, and the pain that sometimes flashes through the perpetual blinds on the character’s eyes is so on point that you will feel it as a gut stab. It is no wonder that this performance earned Matsuyama the Best Actor at the 59th Blue Ribbon Awards.
Since the film is very much centred on Satoshi, the other cast members can merely receive notable mentions – Higashide Masahiro pulled off the perfect, basically expressionless Habu, and the all-around-present Lily Franky did another of his chameleon stints as Satoshi’s mentor, while Sometani Shōta decently delivered on his stock character of Satoshi’s (only) friend, Mitsugu Egawa.
Directing this film was a true challenge. Just like in the chess-centred (or rather, slow-sport-centred) films, it is hard to create the tension when for intensely long periods of time, there is barely any movement and – in the case of shogi – the only people present during the match are the two players and one referee. And yet, director Mori Yoshitaka succeeded in creating a well-balanced story arc, with well placed moments of tension. The sequences with shogi matches are masterfully edited, with sound effects that are not overbearing and are perfectly timed – the combination succeeds in making the viewer feel what is happening on the screen, even if they do not understand the game itself.
Given the known ending of Satoshi’s story, it is clear that the film is a tearjerker (at the end of the screening in Udine during the Far East Film Festival, barely an eye was left dry in the house), but it is so much more. It delivers the drama, but most of all, it delivers an abundance of messages and life lessons that Satoshi has left behind to shine a light onto the struggles, meaning and value of life. Most definitely worth the watch.
Written by Sanja Struna
All photos © Kadokawa