Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5
The Stars: Hayato Ichihara, Kengo Kora, Yu Kashii, Toshio Kakei, Mitsuki Tanimura
The Story: Two childhood buddies who couldn’t be more different; Yuki’s (Kora) shy, bookish nature makes him a bull’s eye for getting terrorized at school, while Kabu’s (Ichihara) defiant, devil-may-care attitude and innate talent for throwing killer punches are admired and feared by many. Inspired by his best friend and tired of being pushed around, Yuki joins the boxing club. As the duo hone their skills together and share sweat, blood and tears, they begin to learn more about life, teamwork and friendship.
The Buzz: Box! is director Toshio Lee’s follow-up project from his smash feature debut Detroit Metal City, adapted from Naoki Hyakuta’s sports novel of the same name. Lead actor Ichihara also went skinhead for his role and trained exclusively under ex-boxing champ Nobuyuki Tabuta since August 2009. That means there wasn’t a need for stunt people in the film’s intensive boxing sequences.
Although one can’t help but compare and question similarities between Box! and other Hollywood classics of the genre like Rocky and more recently Million Dollar Baby, Lee’s latest effort does a commendable job in keeping the delicate balance between gritty drama and his off-beat comedic style reminiscent of Detroit Metal City. The script is sharp yet poignant, and reflects the tribulations of his young protagonists without coming across as condescending or overdramatic.
While many youth-centered films of late are all icing and no cake, Box! demonstrates its cut above the rest by investing in solid character development for the most part and an outstanding cast. Ichihara (Rookies, All About Lily Chou Chou) excels exceptionally here, playing rebellious Kabu with a beguiling, understated intensity. So much that when he eventually swallows his pride and congratulates Yuki for beating him in a friendly match, we silently applaud his emotional maturity. Kora’s (Nowegian Wood) evolution from waifish teen boy to champion boxer is initially unconvincing (Ichihara’s fighting lessons visibly pay-off here as he slides more smoothly into his role), but his underdog triumphs will tug all the right heartstrings. Unfortunately, Yu Kashii’s (Death Note) turn as a terminally annoyed school teacher does nothing to serve the plot. As does Maruno (Tanimura), the boxing team’s new manager habouring a not-so-secret crush on Kabu, whose tragedy towards the end of the film presents a weak climactic arc.
Some headache inducing, close-up shots notwithstanding, Lee’s cinematographic approach is generally authentic and stirring, managing to capture the essence of the sport in a refreshingly organic way that’s part art-house, part WWF. Even if his infrequent employment of slow-mo freeze frames and split screens can seem a bit gimmicky. J-pop aficionados will revel in the film’s soundtrack, peppered with fun, current tunes perfectly in-sync with the pace of the story.
As the film closes with an ultimate showdown between Kabu and a long-time rival, you’re inexplicably drawn in as the camera meanders its way around the ring, drowning out your thoughts with atmospheric crowd sounds. You watch and listen with bated breath for the final bell to ring, and realize without a doubt, this is a production on top of its game.