REVIEW: Going the Distance (2016)

Asahi (Shinichiro Matsuura) is a boxing trainer. After growing up in an orphanage, he moved to Tokyo and now lives with his fiancée Kaori (Yumi Endo). When a boxing client named Kita (Nobu Morimoto) announces that he is opening a new restaurant, Asahi connects him with former schoolmate and fellow orphan Hiroto (Masahiro Umeda) for a lucrative seafood contract. When Kita unexpectedly vanishes, leaving Hiroto millions of yen in debt, Asahi pledges to help his friend – putting growing stress on his relationship and marriage plans with Kaori.

Going the Distance is the debut feature by writer-director Yujiro Harumoto. It follows the model of many independent Japanese features: shot entirely on location, with a small cast and a modest storyline, it uses simple hand-held camera work and broadly avoids the use of a musical score. On the one hand these techniques give the film an immediacy and a realistic edge that more elaborately developed features lack. On the other, it situates Going the Distance into a relatively crowded pack of films and, despite its merits, does not stand out enough from that crowd to get noticed. It is an enjoyable film, but by no means is it a great one.

The film is ultimately a tragedy of dishonesty. Asahi attempts to please two sides at the same time, to the detriment of both. He does not let Hiroto know that his attempts to help him are putting strain of his and Kaori’s engagement. At the same time, he is never fully honest with Kaori about his attempts to aid Hiroto – at the first sign of resistance from her he simply starts making excuses over and over until she cannot trust him anymore. Not that Kaori is honest herself: her unkind mother refuses to accept her relationship with an orphan, perceiving it as a major step down in social status. With unspoken and partly invisible tension pulling at both sides, it is no surprise that their life together is put in peril.

The tragedy of the film is that Asahi simply does not acknowledge the damage his actions are doing until it is too late to change them. The one time he is genuinely open and honest – confiding in his boxing studio boss that Kita has defrauded his friend – he gets exactly the assistance that he needs. That he does not realise this, and continues to inflict harm on himself and others, gives his character a very effective sense of failure. As an independent feature, Going the Distance is not under any pressure to provide easy answers to Asahi’s problems – the result is a film that can be more ambivalent and open-ended that this sort of intimate character drama is typically afforded.

Kaori’s mother adds a specifically Japanese wrinkle to the story, opposing Kaori’s marriage to Asahi without even properly meeting him. That he is an orphan is enough to refuse to cooperate; instead she spends her time criticising Kaori and trying to set her up on pre-arranged dates with more respectable suitors. This of course puts Kaori under enormous pressure. Furthermore, her grandmother is suffering rapidly deteriorating dementia and she wants to get married before her grandmother forgets who she is. For Asahi, delaying the wedding by giving the money saved for it to his friend Hiroto is an inconvenience. For Kaori it is an irrevocable tragedy. At first glance it is easy to demonise Kaori and treat her as an unreasonable and selfish antagonist, but as the film progresses and her frustrations become more fully realised there is a powerful switch. Kaori is not blameless in her relationship crisis, but it is a crisis driven by Asahi’s own foolishness.

The film’s performances are naturalistic and understated. Shinichiro Matsuura is particularly effective as the hapless Asahi – the film is partly derived from his own life – but there ultimately is not a bad actor in the cast. Ultimately, it is the film’s length and pace that cripple it. At almost two hours, but with only about 90 minutes of material with which to sustain it, Going the Distance is constantly draining energy and momentum. The result is something admirable and well assembled, but slightly dull. As a writer and director Yujiro Harumoto shows promise; as an editor he needs further work.

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