Telling a story about disability and boxing, Sho Miyake’s Small, Slow But Steady takes an unexpected route by being a contemplative film about relating to society and working through a sense of loss.
Keiko Ogawa (Yukino Kishii) is a dedicated boxer who is early in her career. Having completely lost her hearing in both ears, she is most comfortable communicating through sign language. Viewed in this lens the ordinarily solemn Keiko’s ability to throw punches becomes a new mode of personal expression in a world that often fails to consider her. Yet even this outlet is shown to be precarious, as the gym she trains at is shedding members and its ageing chairman (Tomokazu Miura) is increasingly beset by health problems.
Faced with the gym’s imminent closure, and a future without her mentor, Keiko’s determination falters. Despite this Lifetime movie premise, Small, Slow But Steady isn’t a hollow story about a singular overcoming. Rather, through deliberate pacing, and a subtle performance by Kishii, the film is more about accepting the pain of life as it encroaches around you and finding the will to trudge forward regardless.
Miyake quickly establishes a thematic preoccupation with perception. When we are introduced to Keiko in the first shot of the film, we see her through a reflection in the mirror. Later, when she is changing at the gym, we see her again through a reflection, this time a full-length mirror. Such a motif creates a dual effect: first, it distances us from Keiko as a character. There is an awareness that her interior life is not entirely open to us as an audience. Characterisation comes from overhearing snippets from the chairman and her brother (who she also lives with) about Keiko’s past, such as her fights with bullies in school. Other times it is intimated through her subtle reactions to turns in the narrative. Her sameness at a prospective new gym hints at her subdued sorrow at the loss of her old training ground. This is contrasted with one of her trainers Hayashi breaking down in tears while doing mitts with her.
The second effect is an awareness of the scrutiny she is under as a disabled woman in an unaccommodating world. Set during the Covid pandemic, interactions with hearing people can become alienating for Keiko as face masks prevent her from lip-reading. At one point, a pair of police officers spot her hanging around a favourite training spot near a bridge. First assuming that she is a high school student due to her short stature, they then assume her black eye is from some kind of abuse. Yet their unwillingness to communicate on her level means they quickly give up pursuing an explanation and walk away.
Throughout the film it is made clear that boxing as a profession is more dangerous for Keiko since she cannot hear the bell, or orders from the referee. The chairman of the gym also notes that as a short person with limited reach, she is at a disadvantage. Yet it is clear from the grounded training sequences in the film that boxing is an integral part of her life. The film largely forgoes a score, but when Keiko is doing mitts with one of her trainers, the thwacks and Keiko’s breathing harmoniously come together and take on such a rhythm as to become musical.
It is tempting with boxing films to turn the final fight into the supreme point of the story, where the main character must overcome. Through its languid pace, Miyake’s film sidesteps such a simplistic narrative frame and instead dwells more on the quotidian aspects of Keiko’s life. The balance between her mundane day job as a hotel cleaner, her training as her boxer, and her relationships with friends and family take precedent over a showy climax in the ring.
When Keiko meets some friends for lunch, and the group of women communicate in sign language, the expected subtitles do not appear. It’s a quietly striking moment in the film. This decision to withhold places a hearing audience in Keiko’s position, where we are put into a situation where we cannot understand. By denying us access to this facet of Keiko’s life, the film prompts larger questions about a disabled character’s relationship to an able-bodied audience. A rather liberal progressive view of cinema is that films can educate a privileged audience about the plights facing people who are marginalised in society. Yet doing so, can create a false impression of “understanding” in the audience and also exposes marginalised characters to an interpretive scrutiny that can at times be unwelcome.
If the film touches on the politics of living as a disabled person in an ableist world, it springs from a robust foundation of quietly stirring human drama. Miyake’s film is understated, seemingly out of respect for the withdrawn character at its centre.