Shô Miyake's film about the world's first hearing-impaired professional woman boxer brilliantly sidesteps the standard beats
The title might as well describe the experience of watching this meditative, rhythmic film. Small, Slow But Steady is an exploration of what it means to be Deaf, from the margins, and a professional sportsperson: this is a biopic of Keiko Ogasawara (played here by Yukino Kishii), who in 2019 became the first ever hearing-impaired professional woman boxer.
But don’t expect any standard biopic beats here. Instead of focusing on sentiment, or on the catharsis of smashing glass ceilings, or the immense physical and structural challenges Keiko faces, Small, Slow But Steady focuses on training regimes, domestic routines and on the commute to and from the gym. We’ll often spend a good few minutes with Keiko sparring, the thuds and snaps of her gloves against mitts forming a hypnotic soundtrack of its own. Or we’ll be there on her run to the gym, the muggy cityscape enveloping her.
Shot on 16mm, the film makes gorgeous use of Tokyo, but this isn’t the glitzy neon-covered version of the city we’re used to, opting or a suburban, low-income area instead. Plot details emerge slowly, but a key thread is the possible loss of Keiko’s gym – with most gyms unwilling to take on a Deaf boxer, options are limited. The one place willing to train her is a high-end, tech-heavy place, but Keiko (a hotel cleaner in her day job) rejects it for being too far from home, though one suspects she rejects it just as much because she’s being used as a token.
All this is depicted without flash or flair. Director Shô Miyake directs most scenes from a static mid-range angle, only occasionally dropping in for a close-up when we’re trying to figure out what Keiko’s thinking. Kishii’s performance is tender yet tricksy, her doubts about the risks of the sport swirling against her obvious love for it.
But the repetition remains the key. As anyone who has ever tried to play any sport recreationally or competitively knows, skill comes not quite from natural talent, but from endless replication. The mechanical swish of a basketballer’s shooting motion; the ripping swing of a tennis player’s forehand; the instinctual swivel of a hip as a footballer opens up to shoot – it all comes from countless hours of repeated motions, until they emerge as second nature. The same, really, as any other skill we pick up in life.
Small, Slow But Steady appreciates the routine of this regimen, and the benefits it brings to a human being. It appreciates how this cycle brings a certain cleansing sense of nothingness once you’re in the middle of it. It also appreciates what happens when this pleasurable nothingness meets competitive pressure, as Keiko’s moves through professional boxing come with added expectation – something it’s clear she’s not sure about meeting, especially as her professional bouts clearly don’t earn her enough to quit the day job.
There’s a kinship here with the little-seen The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki by Juho Kuosmanen, another boxing biopic about a Finnish fighter equally unsure about his boxing career. Both films are equally sanguine about what sporting success means – it’s ultimately about what the individual takes from it, everything else be damned. What a wonderful, evocative exploration of such a philosophy.
Small, Slow But Steady is released in UK cinemas and Curzon Home Cinema on 30 June.Where to watch