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Few films released in Japan this year have made life and death feel as palpable as they do in Tsuyoshi Kumeta’s “Underdogs.” This scruffy, lo-fi documentary, shot over the course of seven years and 20 trips to the Philippines, follows the lives of four Japanese men in late middle age who have left their native country for a precarious existence in the slums of Manila.

They are the flip side of the usual migration narrative: citizens of an affluent post-industrial nation, reduced to poverty and homelessness in the Global South. Going back to the land of their birth doesn’t seem to be an option.

One of them is a former cop, left partially paralyzed by a stroke and living in a cell-like room without any windows, where he’s entirely reliant on the kindness of strangers. Another is an ex-yakuza who fled Japan due to an incident he won’t discuss, and now lives in the alley behind a bike shop, which floods whenever it rains.

Underdogs (Nare no Hate)
Rating
Run Time 120 mins.
Language Japanese, Tagalog
Opens Now showing

“There’s no one to boss me around,” jokes Issei Yasuoka, a gaunt 58-year-old who once worked for a securities firm. As if to underscore the point, he invites Kumeta back to his home and smokes crystal meth while the camera is still rolling.

The film’s most likable character, a former truck driver named Toshiharu Hirayama, has started a new family in Manila, though he’s struggling to make enough money to keep the electricity on. At one point in the documentary, he saves up to buy a food cart, only for it to be stolen. Yet when he tells Kumeta that he never felt this happy while he was living in Japan, you believe him.

“Underdogs” charts the inexorable passage of time, marked by obvious physical infirmities and progressive loss of teeth, without trying to impose a grander narrative. There’s a lot of un-subtitled Tagalog dialogue, which has the effect of keeping viewers as in the dark as the director himself. The soundtrack, by tuba player Daysuke Takaoka, contributes to the film’s offbeat tone.

Working without any additional crew, Kumeta shoots in a diaristic fashion, mostly making his presence felt in the form of onscreen captions. He captures both the bustle and squalor of Manila’s underbelly: While the street scenes explode with color, the interiors are cast in a sickly fluorescent pallor, and you can practically smell the decay.

The film accrues poignancy as it goes along, reaching an apotheosis during an extended sequence in which the director is led around a cemetery, in search of the spot where one of his interviewees — since deceased — may have been buried. His quest is ultimately as fruitless as trying to discern higher meaning in these men’s fates.

It should all be enormously depressing, yet “Underdogs” pulses with life.

Kumeta had originally set out to make a TV documentary, inspired by journalist Takehide Mizutani’s prize-winning 2011 book, “Nihon o Suteta Otoko-tachi” (“The Men Who Abandoned Japan”), before the project metastasized into something bigger.

The director’s TV roots are perhaps most evident in the film’s conclusion, which ties up loose ends but feels far too abrupt. The subjects of “Underdogs” may have departed this life without a proper send-off, but there’s no reason Kumeta couldn’t have given them one.

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