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Wednesday, May 23, 2001

The fight of their lives


Rating: * * * * Director: Toshiaki Toyoda Running time: 98 minutes Language: JapaneseNow playing as the late show at Shinjuku Theatre

Boxing movies have one advantage over action films with high body counts and world-shattering explosions: It's not written that the hero has to blast all the bad guys into oblivion and finish the third act in professional triumph. In fact, some of the best-remembered movie boxers never won their big fights, from Marlon Brando's Terry Malloy -- the patron saint of washed-up pugs everywhere -- to Sylvester Stallone's Rocky Balboa, who went down in glorious defeat in his big comeback bout. (Robert De Niro's Jake La Motta in "Raging Bull" may have had his 15 minutes in the ring, but his was hardly a zero-to-hero story.)

Unchain Kaji in "Unchain"

In filming "Unchain," his new documentary about four young boxers in Osaka, Toshiaki Toyoda took the open-ended structure of the boxing movie to another level. When he started filming in 1995, he had no idea whether one or more of his subjects would become a Jake La Motta or even Rocky Balboa -- or trundle down the slope to oblivion. As it turned out, none of them made it big. (One, whose ring name Unchain Kaji supplied the title of the film, never won a bout, period.)

Toyoda did not, however, simply record whatever fate (or his heroes' opponents) dished up. Though not stated in the film's promotional materials, Toyoda fiddled with chronology and even staged several scenes, though not in a blatantly obvious way. It might, thus, be more accurate to call "Unchain" a docu-drama -- not that it matters.

Toyoda's feature debut, the 1998 film "Pornostar," explored some of the same themes as "Unchain," including the charged one of violence as purification. Both the hit-man hero of "Pornostar" and the boxer Unchain Kaji are unsocialized types for whom violence is expression, identity and destiny. But while their actions may seem bad or even mad, they are, in their own wacked-out way, pure-hearted seekers who, by wrestling with their various demons (or succumbing to them), attain a kind of Beat grace -- one imagines them as the subjects of a Jack Kerouac story.

Rather than echo Kerouac's inimitable voice -- with its heart-wounded sound of reverie and rant -- Toyoda plays the standard documentarian role of dogged, meticulous observer, but with a skilled storyteller's feel for dramatic structure. He is not yet a Martin Scorcese with the camera -- his usual approach to his key boxing scenes is to poke his digicam through the ropes and let it run -- but he also brings his characters and their world to raw, vivid life. A serious aspirant for a career as a professional shogi (Japanese chess) player who gave up training at the age of 17 and later turned to film, Toyoda can sympathize better than most with their struggle -- and its costs.

The film belongs, most of all, to Unchain Kaji, who was born in Osaka in 1969 and was raised by his uncle at his mother's request. At the age of 20, sporting a goatee and an attitude, he made his pro-boxing debut and lost his first seven bouts -- another sad case of a big heart and slow hands. Forced to quit on doctor's orders, Kaji became a jack-of-all-trades who was willing to do anything but -- he announced with pride -- contract killings. While scuffling at various jobs, he kept up his connection with the ring, serving as a cornerman to a former biker-turned-boxer named Garuda Tetsu. Watching Kaji's antics at one of Tetsu's bouts, e.g., climbing into the ring to strike champion poses while the referee introduces the fighters, it's not hard to sense a blowup in the making.

It comes when a day laborer working for Kaji's tiny "trading company" calls to demand his back Four young boxers and the pay. Enraged by what he considers his employee's insolence, Kaji pours yellow paint over his head, girds himself for battle and, together with a rugged-looking "shoot boxer" named Seiichiro Nishibayashi, invades a labor exchange to teach its aging and alcoholic habitues "a lesson." Instead the two get the worst of it from three yakuza, and Kaji ends up in a mental hospital.

This, however, is not the end of his story. There is much more to tell about Kaji and his three fellow boxers, particularly the dramatic (and staged) reunion, two years later, between a chastened and wiser Kaji and Osamu Nagaishi, a marginally successful boxer who married Kaji's former girlfriend while Kaji was in the hospital. There is, however, nothing fake about Kaji's change -- or his friends' affectionate recollections of his wild and crazy past and their own long, ultimately losing battles for a title shot -- or simply a measure of self-respect.

Toyoda combines every means at his disposal -- montages of old snaps, flashbacks of faded videos, extended interviews with the principals and gong-to-gong footage of their bouts -- to bring us close to the raucous joy and frightening chaos, brief triumphs and lasting disappointments of their days. By the end we understand more about their trade, in its primal power and terrible harshness, than all but the best boxing films can tell us. We also feel an admiration for his heroes, though no one will ever confuse them with Sly Stallone -- in a society that rewards the safe, conventional and mediocre, they have dared to embrace a dangerous dream of warrior's glory. They, if nothing else, have lived.

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