You’d be forgiven if you mistook Shô Miyake’s new film, Small, Slow but Steady, for a documentary about the forest floor’s invisible undergrowth, or maybe the chronicles of a particularly pensive tortoise. What probably didn’t come to mind is the life of a semi-professional boxer, a world more often associated with brute physicality and unforgiving force. Mikaye based his film on an autobiographical novel by real-life female boxer Ogasawara Keiko, who, like the film’s protagonist, Ogawa Keiko (Yukino Kishii), is hearing-impaired.
A film with a deaf main character is necessarily a film about communication, and boxing, like all sports, is a medium that allows humans to convey and quell their emotions — fear, rage, grief — when other outlets fail. It’s also an intensely intimate activity, two sweaty bodies orbiting around and colliding into each other, in perpetual motion until someone goes down, often in a shower of blood. Punctuating the film’s subtle narrative beats is the mesmerizing patter of jump rope against floor and the percussive slap of mitts against sparring pads, lending the film a propulsive intensity that the script itself downplays.
Petite, guarded, and not particularly friendly, Keiko’s not the type to explain herself or educate others, however well-meaning, about deafness. When she bumps into someone on the sidewalk and causes him to drop what he’s holding, she simply walks away. “Ill-mannered lout!” he shouts after her. Even if she weren’t deaf, her behavior would probably be the same. The Chairman (Miura Tomokazu), who owns the shabby, family-run gym where Keiko trains, readily admits that she doesn’t have a particular talent for the sport. Such a matter-of-fact statement would never appear in a more traditional sports movie, but the familiar tropes of superhuman talent or rags-to-riches arcs are strikingly missing.
Small, Slow but Steady is far more concerned with Keiko’s day-to-day routine and the incremental set pieces that make up her quietly remarkable life. It’s shot on warm, grainy 16mm film stock around the Arakawa district (the same neighborhood where Ozu shot Tokyo Story), a slightly neglected corner of the city that’s galaxies away from the futuristic glamour of Shibuya or Harajuku. Partially set in the early days of the pandemic, the constant presence of face masks adds another buffer between characters while impairing Keiko’s ability to lip read, isolating her even further. The film’s central conflict is the Chairman’s decision to close the gym, though “conflict” might be grandiloquent; it’s simply a decision, and a pragmatic one at that, given the gym’s flagging membership and his own deteriorating health.
During the day, Keiko works as a maid at a high-end hotel, where her colleagues treat her boxing with polite incredulity. At night, she goes home to a bare-bones apartment she shares with her floppy-haired brother, Seiji, a cook who spends most of his time noodling with a guitar. They sign together, gruffly; in one scene, he attempts to draw her out of a bad mood, but she refuses to engage. “Talking doesn’t make a person less alone,” she shoots back. One of the few times she smiles in the entire 139-minute film is during an outing with deaf friends, the three of them signing animatedly over beers (while Kishii is not deaf, the other actors in this scene are.) The entire conversation is untranslated, shifting onto viewers the isolation that many deaf people must feel on a regular basis. It’s fitting, then, that Keiko, whose interior life is as closed off from viewers as the inside of a boxing ring is to spectators, finds herself most relaxed in the one scene audiences aren’t meant to understand.
Published as part of New Directors/New Films 2022: Dispatch 4.