Berlinale 2022 review: Small, Slow But Steady (Shô Miyake)

Small, Slow But Steady is a sensitive and multi-layered character study driven by authentic emotions and the filmmaker’s genuine admiration for his characters.”

Small, Slow But Steady tells the remarkable story of Keiko Ogawa, a young female boxer who, despite being born with a neurological disease that left her with no hearing in either ear, becomes a professional boxer and wins multiple matches in Tokyo. If there ever was an inspirational true story worthy of royal Hollywood treatment, this is it, at least on paper. Keiko’s journey is a perfect fit for an uplifting crowd-pleaser about perseverance and improbable sporting achievements. But what is most admirable and surprising in director Shô Miyake’s treatment of this material is his complete rejection of such generic conventions. Small, Slow But Steady is indeed a very moving (in parts, even rousing) experience, but not because Miyake knows how to manipulate his audience into rooting for his protagonist. Instead, this is a sensitive and multi-layered character study driven by authentic emotions and the filmmaker’s genuine admiration for his characters. Based on Keiko Ogasawara’s autobiographical novel, this accomplished drama should attract considerable festival attention and distributor interest following its premiere in the Encounters section of the Berlinale.

Keiko’s day job as a housekeeper in a posh hotel pays the bills but offers little in the way of personal gratification. She spends most of her evenings training in an old boxing gym, run by an elderly chairman whose father established this facility shortly after World War II. This is not a glamorous sports film about a champion in the making. It becomes clear fairly early in the film that Keiko is not particularly talented, nor does she attempt to reach miraculous heights in her sport. Small, Slow But Steady follows her as she struggles to deal with her waning will to fight and with accepting the inevitable closure of the gym, which has been hit by both the pandemic and a long-term decline in membership numbers. Her story is bookended by two boxing matches (which her caring and worried mother can barely watch), but the encounter near the end is not presented in climactic fashion. Miyake’s approach is free of excessive sentimentality, which includes downplaying potentially thrilling or devastating moments and results in a sombre yet engaging drama.

Small, Slow But Steady may not build up to a glossy final showdown, but there are plenty of memorable, even heartbreaking sequences dispersed along the way. Keiko’s training diary provides the narration for a lovely scene that demonstrates her dedication while rhythmic segments about training and boxing resemble improvised dance routines. Particularly moving are seemingly mundane moments that Keiko shares with the chairman, whose health is rapidly deteriorating, and his kind wife. Even simple scenes of Keiko stretching under a bridge before her morning run turn into powerful moments of introspection. In fact, introspection is a key concept for Miyake’s film. Not only Keiko herself, but also many other characters in the film (including her two younger coaches) respond to the imminent closure of their gym (and more broadly, the vanishing of a way of life) in a quiet, contemplative manner. And while Keiko’s sporting life may not include a definitive victory or defeat, her introspection and growth as a character bring a satisfying sense of closure to the film.

Crucial for the success of Small, Slow But Steady is the extraordinary Yukino Kishii, who manages to turn Keiko into an immensely expressive and fascinating character without uttering a full sentence. Kishii finds the perfect balance between the softness that Miyake’s down-to-earth approach demands and the resilience that characterizes Keiko as a human being. This is a role that requires intense physicality and emotional vulnerability at once, and Kishii is more than up to the task, delivering an impressive performance.

Given the naturalism and practicality of Miyake’s storytelling, it is not a stretch to argue that Small, Slow But Steady almost resembles a documentary in parts, but certainly a beautifully crafted and carefully observed one. Shot on 16 mm stock, the film has an evocative and richly textured look throughout. Tokyo is elegantly portrayed as a metropolis where slick modernism and fading traditions co-exist, with Miyake’s subdued visual approach and preference for muted colors revealing his fondness for the older, tired-looking corners of the city. Small, Slow But Steady may seem like a modest endeavor at first, but this distinctive boxing drama is surprisingly radical in its own quiet way.