Masaharu Take’s “Underdog” is a boxing film turned epic. Presented in two parts, it runs for 276 minutes, not long compared with legendary cinematic marathons such as Andy Warhol’s fittingly titled “Sleep” (321 min.) or Abel Gance’s monumental “Napoleon” (330 min.), but a test of endurance nonetheless.

And it’s worth it, though in the second half the story tilts toward the melodramatic as it moves inexorably and rather predictably to a climatic bout between two of the principal characters.

The original script is by Shin Adachi, who collaborated with Take on another boxing film — 2014’s “100 Yen Love,” in which Sakura Ando plays a slacker-turned-boxer. Ando and Adachi both won Japan Academy awards in the end: she for best actress, he for best script.

Underdog (Andadoggu)
Run Time 276 min.
Language Japanese
Opens Nov. 27

This time Take and Adachi give us three boxers who exemplify the “Underdog” title: Akira Suenaga (Mirai Moriyama), a former title contender who is now a human punching bag; Shun Miyagi (Ryo Katsuji), a failing TV comedian who sees boxing as his last chance at a show biz career; and Ryuta Omura (Takumi Kitamura), a cocky up-and-comer with a bright future and a violent past he can’t shake.

Take has said in interviews that Martin Scorsese’s “Raging Bull” was a big influence on the film, which is apparent in the boxing scenes. Moriyama, Katsuji and Kitamura may not be Robert De Niro, but they give similarly intense, do-or-die performances in the ring. And like De Niro, they underwent hard training for their roles that add credibility to their characters.

We first meet Moriyama’s Akira as a washed-up veteran training on cigarettes and booze for bottom-of-the-card fights while working as a driver for a deriheru (“delivery health”) call girl agency. But he has a fan in Ryuta, who tells him he saw Akira’s Japan lightweight title match, which he lost by a knockout.

Ryuta’s admiration for Akira’s gutsy fight in that bout, though, is mixed with contempt for what the older man has become. “Stop pissing on boxing!” Ryuta tells him, after passing his pro test with flying colors. Happy in his marriage with his now-pregnant wife (Minori Hagiwara), Ryuta is on the upswing, personally and professionally.

Then, Akira’s short-tempered gym manager gets him a bout with Miyagi that will be the climax of the comedian’s fight-a-pro-boxer reality show. “You can smack him around,” Miyagi’s agents say to a sneering Akira. Meanwhile, Miyagi is training hard not only to avoid looking like a fool in the ring, but also to show his famous actor father (Morio Kazama) that he is not a total loser.

The film also goes darkly if not particularly deeply into Akira’s relationships with his angry, estranged wife (Asami Mizukawa), his hero-worshipping son, and a sultry, hard-bitten sex worker (Kumi Takiuchi) who becomes his lover. Also, his bout with Miyagi will lead to life-changing developments for both boxers, leading to yet another desperate battle in the ring.

Ultimately, the film’s central threesome is fighting for redemption and self-respect, not riches and fame. They aren’t modern samurai, but rather damaged souls who seek to shine by beating each other to bloody pulps.

If this sounds wrong-headed, “Underdog” may not be for you. But in its gritty realism, in and out of the ring, it’s the best boxing film to come out of Japan since “100 Yen Love.”

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