Sometimes when a director is renowned for a specific style it’s almost more interesting to see that filmmaker tackle a more mainstream or traditional project. When I first discovered the works of Shūji Terayama while at film school I was blown away by his unique aesthetic. So I was more than intrigued by his film Boxer (1977) sine I knew going into it that it wasn’t going to be as revolutionary or kinetic as Throw Away Your Books, Rally In The Streets (1971) nor as expressionistic and fantastic as Pastoral: To Die In The Country (1974).
However these two earlier masterpieces echo throughout Boxer. Terayama will cut to a POV shot that then transitions into a highly expressionistic camera move right out of a Sergei Parajanov picture. Likewise the set for Hayato’s apartment is drenched with the artifice and exact control over light that made Pastoral: To Die In The Country such an evocative fantasia. These stylistic flourishes imbue an otherwise mainstream feature with an individuality that elevates the neo-noir material.
Boxer follows Hayato (Bunta Sugawara) some months after throwing a fight when his brother is accidentally killed by Tenma (Kentarô Shimizu). Hayato initially seeks out Tenma for revenge but the young man is able to convince the washed-up boxer to train him. In keeping with the tropes of the genre what follows is a story about how two would-be enemies are able to put their differences aside for the love a sport and begin bonding in the process.
Terayama does a number of interesting things with this well worn premise aside from the aforementioned stylistic choices. One of Terayama’s key decisions is to shoot Hayato’s flashbacks without diegetic sound and in sepia tone. Terayama clearly signals with the sepia tone that what is being seen takes place in the past but the lack of diegetic sound suggests the relative vagueness of memory. Memories in a Terayama film can only be specific in the singular; picking one visual or sound to convey a broader scope of meaning.
But perhaps Terayama’s most important choice as a director was in how he used Hayato’s dog in the story. In Boxer this dog is Hayato’s de facto “familiar”; an externalized representation of his spiritual wellbeing. Terayama not only frames the dog in the same shot as Hayato in a dozen scenes, but he uses the dog as a way of moving his camera into a scene or tableau while at other times, such as the climax of the film, this dog gets its own highly metaphorical cutaways.
The fact that Boxer fits so nicely into a very American genre makes it a perfect gateway film into the fantastic world of Shūji Terayama. Boxer isn’t one of Terayama’s handful of masterpieces but it is still a great little movie that is well worth seeing. One may even argue that the more subtle stylings of Boxer are essential to Terayama’s development as a filmmaker that led him to his visionary Farewell To The Ark (1984)