Few of the films released in Japan this year have made life and death as palpable as in Tsuyoshi Kumeta’s “Underdogs”. This scruffy, lo-fi documentary, shot over seven years and 20 trips to the Philippines, follows the lives of four Japanese men in their late 50s who left their homelands for a precarious existence in the slums of Manila.
They are the reverse of the usual migratory story: citizens of a wealthy post-industrial nation, reduced to poverty and homelessness in the countries of the South. Going back to the country of their birth doesn’t seem like an option.
One of them is a former cop, left partially paralyzed by a stroke and living in a cell-like room with no windows, where he depends entirely on the kindness of strangers. Another is an ex-yakuza who fled Japan due to an incident he won’t talk about, and now lives in the alley behind a bicycle shop, which gets flooded every time it rains.
|Evaluation||out of 5|
“There’s no one to run me,” jokes Issei Yasuoka, a skinny 58-year-old who once worked for a securities firm. As if to make the point, he invites Kumeta over to his house and smokes crystal meth while the camera is still rolling.
The film’s friendliest character, a former truck driver named Toshiharu Hirayama, has started a new family in Manila, although he struggles to earn enough money to keep the electricity. At one point in the documentary, he saves to buy a food cart, only to have it stolen. Yet when he tells Kumeta that he never felt happier when he lived in Japan, you believe him.
“Underdogs” traces the inexorable passage of time, marked by obvious physical infirmities and progressive loss of teeth, without seeking to impose a more grandiose story. There’s a lot of unsubtitled Tagalog dialogue, which has the effect of keeping viewers as in the dark as the director himself. The soundtrack, by tubist Daysuke Takaoka, contributes to the film’s quirky tone.
Working without an additional team, Kumeta turns diaristically, mostly making his presence felt in the form of on-screen captions. It captures both the hustle and bustle of Manila’s belly: as the street scenes explode with color, the interiors are cast in a sickly fluorescent pallor, and you can practically smell the rot.
The film becomes poignant as it goes, reaching a climax during a long stretch in which the director is led around a cemetery, in search of the spot where one of his interviewees – since deceased – may have been buried. His quest is ultimately as fruitless as trying to discern a higher meaning in the fate of these men.
It should be extremely depressing, but the “Underdogs” are bursting with life.
Kumeta had originally planned to make a TV documentary, inspired by journalist Takehide Mizutani’s award-winning 2011 book, “Nihon o Suteta Otoko-tachi” (“The Men Who Left Japan”), before the project metastasized into something. something bigger.
The director’s TV roots are perhaps more evident in the film’s conclusion, which ends the issues but feels way too abrupt. The subjects of “Underdogs” may have left this life without a good start, but there’s no reason Kumeta couldn’t have given them one.
In accordance with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is urging residents and visitors to exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, concert halls and other public spaces.
In a time of both disinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing you can help us tell the story right.
Tsuyoshi Kumeta, outsiders