Not since Alfred Hitchcock’s 1927 silent “The Ring” has there been a boxing film quite so quiet as “Small, Slow But Steady,” a gentle but hard-edged study of a flyweight female pugilist in suburban Tokyo. More concerned with the wear and tear of everyday life than pummeling sound and fury, director Shô Miyake’s measured, unsentimental adaptation of a memoir by Keiko Ogasawara — who turned professional despite the difficulties of lifelong deafness — turns out to be somewhat aptly described by its own title, though none of those adjectives quite conveys its rare and delicate grace. A highlight of the Encounters program at this year’s Berlinale, this unassuming gem should turn the heads of specialist distributors and further festival programmers, despite its general avoidance of crowd-courting tactics.
In adapting Ogasawara’s book “Makenaide!” — which translates, with an imperative urgency the film doesn’t share, as “Do Not Lose!” — Miyake and co-writer Masaaki Sakai have semi-fictionalized their subject as Keiko Ogawa, played with stern, clenched intensity by actor Yukino Kishii. That decision frees the film from the structural trappings of the biopic, as it adopts a focused, in-the-moment approach to Keiko’s life and career: There’s little backstory here, though we surmise her past struggles from the weary pragmatism with which she faces present-day ones. Nor is the film centered wholly on her, as Keiko’s narrative anchors a wider yet intimate study of an independent boxing community — specifically, the staff and patrons of the hard-up, family-run boxing gym where she trains — up against the pressures of corporate competition and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Overseen by veteran trainer Mr. Sasaki (a wonderful Tomokazu Miura), it’s a worn, shabby space where Keiko feels more at home than she does anywhere else — including the drab, functional apartment she shares with her brother Seiji (Himi Sato), with whom she has a mutually respectful but not especially close relationship. Indeed, the resilient, self-sufficient Keiko appears to have few close allies in life, with Mr. Sasaki, whose own health and eyesight are failing, her most dedicated mentor and protector. Their silent, intuitively communicative workout sessions, both in the gym and around the dun, scrubby tangle of motorways and waterways surrounding outer Tokyo, are some of the film’s warmest scenes. Her remaining time is spent on her day job as a cleaner at a high-end hotel, where her managers and co-workers regard her boxing ambitions with supportive amusement, tactfully avoiding comment when she dutifully turns up at work with a swollen shiner.
The surprise of “Small, Slow But Steady,” then, is that its narrative obstacles aren’t found in the expected sports-drama places. Though Keiko’s reserved mother (Hiroko Nakajima) voices concerns about the long-term prospects of her daughter’s career as a fighter — gently suggesting that perhaps Keiko should be content with having gone pro at all — there’s no one telling her she can’t do it, even as her disability makes matches an inordinate challenge. After winning her first two professional fights, it’s her own self-doubt that chips away at her, making her an underdog even when she’s ostensibly on top. Furthermore, the endangerment of her safe space — as Mr. Sasaki’s woes and financial strains prompt the imminent closure of the gym — diminishes her will to continue, even as bigger, shinier venues and coaches show an interest in taking her on.
The subtle arc of Miyake’s film is thus built less around victories or defeats in the ring — there’s no climactic fight on which everything hangs — than the ebb and flow of Keiko’s mental health, as she largely has to prove herself to herself, and figure out why she wants to continue fighting at all. The modest, interior nature of these stakes, however, is what makes “Small, Slow But Steady” so achingly moving, as the film adopts a holistic perspective in which past victories count for as much as any future ones. Kishii’s restrained, precisely expressive performance reveals her shifts in self-confidence and self-awareness largely through physical movement, most particularly in her training sequences: It’s all in the pace and rhythm of her punches, as keenly tracked by editor Keiko Okawa.
In all departments, the film’s craft matches the script’s sensitivity and lack of trickery. With no score, the soundtrack picks out the specific, amplified sounds that Keiko can’t hear — the dull whoosh of traffic on her outdoor training circuit, or the flat thud of leather on leather as she spars with her coaches — while maintaining a predominant air of calm, with the pandemic a largely unspoken but atmosphere-shaping presence throughout. Yuta Tsukinaga’s grainy, tactile 16mm lensing, meanwhile, often casts proceedings in a soft, crepuscular light that brings an appropriate sense of melancholy to proceedings without undue romanticism. Multiple lives and livelihoods are shown fading in “Small, Slow But Steady,” though its heroine, we suspect, has several rounds left to fight.