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In Japanese boxing, the blue corner of the ring is typically assigned to the lower-ranked fighter. It’s the domain of the underdog, and Nobuto Urita (Kenichi Matsuyama) knows it well.

An aging pro on a permanent losing streak, Nobuto can analyze fights in meticulous detail, but he seems incapable of winning one himself. By day, he works as a trainer at a scruffy gym, where he teaches fitness classes to middle-aged women and conceals his inner regrets behind a veil of good humor.

Those disappointments include the fact that he’s been eclipsed by his old high school pal, Kazuki (Masahiro Higashide), who looks set to become the gym’s first champion in decades and has won the affections of Nobuto’s childhood sweetheart, Chika (Fumino Kimura).

Blue
Rating
Run Time 107 mins.
Language Japanese
Opens Now showing

However, Kazuki’s professional success has come at a price: He’s already displaying signs of brain damage that may force him to abandon his title bid.

Meanwhile, Nobuto takes on a gawky student, Tsuyoshi (Tokio Emoto), who just wants to impress a female co-worker, but starts to develop a knack for the sport.

There are plenty of familiar elements in Keisuke Yoshida’s “Blue,” but the film takes them in some unexpected directions. This is a boxing movie that dispenses with many of the conventions typical to the genre, not least the idea that life’s problems can be solved in the ring.

Yoshida knows the subject better than most: The director has been boxing for 30 years, and his screenplay evinces both a deep love for the sport and a determination not to romanticize it. Although he can’t resist the odd training montage, soundtracked by soaring rock guitars (an unfortunate misstep in an otherwise sure-footed film), there’s barely an ounce of sentiment here.

The director choreographed the action sequences himself, and they are engrossing to watch: quick, brutal and frequently sloppy, captured with close-up camerawork that leaves little room to breathe. Yet the expected endorphin hits never arrive: Yoshida keeps pulling away from fights before they finish, or underscoring how victory often comes tinged with defeat.

Matsuyama spent two years training for the role, and is completely believable as a man who has devoted the best years of his life to boxing without ever landing a knockout blow. His co-stars are just as impressive (seriously, who’d have thought Emoto would make such a credible pugilist?), and the film gives equal weight to its central quartet.

Though it initially seems like a character study, “Blue” turns out to be more of an ensemble piece, and Yoshida is just as interested in evoking the rhythms and rituals of the boxing world as in the individual players.

In recent movies such as “Himeanole” (2016) and “Thicker Than Water” (2018) the director has delighted in pushing his audience out of their comfort zone. A boxing film may seem like an odd time to start showing restraint, but “Blue” is surprisingly subtle in its methods. While it struck me as a bit oblique the first time around, a second viewing revealed how rich the film’s tapestry is.

It takes a while to realize that Yoshida isn’t interested in using boxing as a metaphor for anything except the sport itself. “Blue” may not be the greatest boxing movie to have come out of Japan, but it’s definitely the most honest.

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