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‘The Miracle of Crybaby Shottan’: It’s never too late to make your move

by Mark Schilling

Contributing Writer

Chess pops up in a surprising number of feature films. Just look at all the documentaries and dramas about the outrageously gifted Bobby Fischer. Shogi, or Japanese chess, is a different and smaller story, though “Satoshi: A Move for Tomorrow,” a 2016 film about prodigy Satoshi Murayama, garnered awards for its star, Kenichi Matsuyama.

“Shottan, The Miracle” is another shogi biopic, this time about Shoji “Shottan” Segawa (Ryuhei Matsuda), a struggler who finally got his chance to turn pro at the age of 35. By contrast, shogi’s reigning genius, Sota Fujii, was 14 when he joined the professional ranks last year.

Directed by Toshiaki Toyoda, who trained to be a professional shogi player himself as a boy, “Shottan, The Miracle” is a workman-like examination of Segawa’s career, minus the surrealism and violence of Toyoda’s earlier work. (See his 1998 debut, “Pornostar,” for a particularly vivid example).

The Miracle of Crybaby Shottan (Nakimushi Shottan no Kiseki)
Rating
Run Time 127 mins.
Language JAPANESE

The film also builds to a rousing do-or-die climax that gets the tear ducts working especially if, like this reviewer, you are a late bloomer yourself. Despite the obvious aim to win sympathy for its hard-luck hero, the film is less manipulative than it is faithful to the outlines of Segawa’s life. You don’t need to know anything about the game to understand the drama, which is universal. Many are those with talent, but not that special something — call it drive or luck or both — that separates the amateur from the pro.

We first see Segawa as a shy boy good at shogi, which makes him a nerd in the eyes of some — beginning with a lardy bullying classmate he defeats in a match. He finds an angelic teacher (Takako Matsu) who tells him to keep doing what he does well, and a friend and next-door neighbor, Yuya (Yojiro Noda), who shares his obsession.

Then, at the urging of his kindly father (Jun Kunimura), Segawa tests himself against adult opponents at a shogi dojo — a smoke-filled lair presided over by a grizzled master (Issey Ogata) who recognizes the boys’ ability and urges them to apply to the Shogi Federation’s training academy for future pros.

Segawa passes the academy exam and, instead of going to high school, commits himself entirely to the game, while Yuya takes the opposite path. According to the federation’s rules he must ascend to fourth dan — the lowest pro rank — before the age of 26. Though encouraged by nearly everyone he knows, Segawa repeatedly fails to scale this wall.

In the usual zero-to-hero film the lead comes through in an uplifting climax, but Segawa is not so fortunate. Even so, he loves shogi too much to give it up and, miracle of miracles, discovers his inner winner as he approaches his mid-30s.

Matsuda, who first worked with Toyoda in “9 Souls” (2003), plays Segawa as an introvert with a fierce inner fire — and nagging doubts — but is less convincing when called on to baldly emote.

Also, though Toyoda obviously loves the game, his many circling camera moves and close-ups of fingers snapping shogi pieces into place become repetitive, as does Toshiyuki Terui’s peppy generic rock score. But Toyoda succeeds in turning a highly individual game into a stirring team sport.

Samuel Beckett famously wrote: “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Over the course of a quarter century, Segawa lived those six words to the fullest.