In last week’s review of Yuya Ishii’s “The Tokyo Night Sky Is Always the Densest Shade of Blue,” I wrote that poetry-based Japanese films are rare — but here seems to be another: Toshimitsu Iizuka’s “Poetry Angel.” One more example and I’ll have a trend.
Made to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Tanabe Benkei Film Festival in Wakayama Prefecture, the film itself is not poetic. Instead it’s a sweet-spirited, tug-at-the-heartstrings addition to that long list of local films about folks, young and not-so-young, finding their grooves through do-or-die competition in some sport or art.
This time the “sport” is poetry boxing, a real form of mano-a-mano verbal combat pitting two poets against each other, with judges deciding the winner. The dueling poets belong to five-person teams and the team that can grab the most individual victories wins.
Before this contest begins, a rocky personal journey awaits our hero, Tsutomu Tamaki (Amane Okayama). The only son of a hard-working plum farmer, Tamaki spends his days whacking weeds and his evenings fiddling with a so-called novel he tells his parents (Shingo Tsurumi and Jun Miho) he’ll enter in a local contest. In reality, he is putting off the decision to either take over the family plum business or commit himself to his literary dreams.
He is also attracted to a girl who jogs past the farm but never glances in his direction. She is An Maruyama (Rena Takeda), a high school student who is similarly standoffish with her classmates but is a dedicated student at a boxing gym.
After Tamaki loses the contest (we see an elementary school kid and his mother celebrating the child’s victory as Tamaki looks on utterly crestfallen), he wanders into a recruiting session for a poetry boxing team. The eager-beaver coach (Akihiro Kakuta) delivers a stirring presentation, but manages to snag only four recruits, Tamaki among them.
Scripted by Iizuka, the film follows a well-worn genre path: The team trains hard but suffers a humiliating defeat to rivals from a girls’ high school. Tamaki, whose poem features weed-whacker sounds, is among the losers. Meanwhile, An learns that bashing a punching bag and an opponent in the ring are two punishingly different things.
But as the stories of Tamaki and An converge, through the offices of an elderly poetry boxer (Atom Shimojo) who is the girl’s kindly grandfather, the film goes its own idiosyncratic way to a less-than-foregone conclusion. An, it turns out, has a good reason for her silence, while Tamaki is not quite the self-deluded slacker he appears. And the team finds its expected groove, but its poems come from its members’ real lives, not a genre rule book.
For those who know Japanese poetry in only its haiku and other traditional forms, the film’s poetry-boxing matches will be a revelation. The best contestants emote with a verve and nerve alien to the “reserved Japanese” stereotype.
Granted, Tamaki and his teammates are the latest among the many lovable oddballs who populate domestic “human dramas” on big screens and small. But Takeda’s portrayal of An is fresh, appealing and, for a reason I can’t reveal, incredibly brave. Where others stumble and fall, she stumbles — and soars. A poetry angel indeed.