TOKYO (AP) — The devotion Kenichi Matsuyama gave to portraying a shogi prodigy who lived a fearlessly single-minded life is clear in the months he spent practicing placing the pawns in the Japanese board game, immersing himself in the master's selfless view on death and gorging to gain weight.
"He lived in a win-or-lose world, and for that, he had to give up so much, to be living on the edge, totally devoted to that one calling. That fascinated me. I wanted to give it my all," he told The Associated Press, ahead of the premiere of "Satoshi: A Move for Tomorrow."
The film portraying the angst-filled story of Satoshi Murayama, who died of bladder cancer at 29 in 1998, opens at theaters around Japan on Nov. 19. It closed the Tokyo International Film Festival and is being showcased at the Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival, which runs through Nov. 24. It was eight years in the making. And Matsuyama wanted the role right away.
Murayama had a serious kidney ailment since he was 5. He fell in love with shogi while hospitalized. His pudginess was a side-effect of his sickness and the medication he had to take all his life. Shogi, besides his love for manga, was about all he knew in life. He never had a girlfriend, he confesses in one scene. His last words were about shogi moves.
His story is that universal one of a legend in any field, those so pure they would dedicate their entire lives, even risking death, for the pursuit of perfection.
"He confronted his life head-on, and it wasn't about living for anyone else" said Matsuyama, who has starred in "Norwegian Wood," the 2010 coming-of-age film based on the best-selling novel by Haruki Murakami. "Mr. Murayama always felt death close to him. That was his predicament."
Similar to the way boxers have to keep winning to remain champions, shogi players have to keep winning. That's why Murayama kept delaying treatment and then goes back to the shogi board barely a month after major surgery. He is in constant pain, but he doesn't stop. He doesn't want to cut his nails because, he says, even nails are trying to live.
Matsuyama gained 26 kilograms (57 pounds) in about three months, speeding the transformation since it ruled out other acting jobs. Gorging on ice cream and rice cakes, he gradually felt he was morphing into Murayama, that all-out physical role-building that often grabs attention — Robert De Niro in "Raging Bull" or Charlize Theron in "Monster."
"Usually, I'm told to lose weight for this job, and we have to restrict our eating and drinking. But for this, I got to let all that go," Matsuyama said, looking lean and nimble, back at his usual weight of 66 kilograms (145 pounds). "I ate potato chips in bed with my daughter."
Becoming Murayama was about more than getting fat, although that brought him closer to the part. Even the way he walked, the way he carried himself, and the aches and twitches that followed, as well the way his mind worked, all changed, recalled Matsuyama, whose marital partner Koyuki played opposite Tom Cruise in "The Last Samurai."
Matsuyama spent a year practicing the way shogi masters place their pawns, flat hexagon-shaped tiles, with that decisive click against the board, their fingers placed just so.
The tension of the shogi scenes — two people facing off, sitting Japanese-style on the floor, in thick silence, except for the click-clicks against the board — is gripping, even to audiences unfamiliar with the art.
The intense rivalry that's also a respectful love story with Yoshiharu Habu, still a shogi star today, drives the film, as dramatic as that between top-level athletes — Ted Williams versus Joe DiMaggio, Martina Navratilova versus Chris Evert, Bill Russell versus Wilt Chamberlain.
While Habu gained a reputation as a cool thinker, Murayama dazzled with his unpredictable intuitive moves.
The movie closes with an unforgettably haunting scene. Soft wind whirls on a street. A young shogi player, who had known and looked up to Murayama, senses Murayama's presence in the air, long after the master's death.
And then there he is, standing as he always did, big, smiling, gazing at what's ahead, an everyday street corner that serves as a profound reminder that such a legacy, such passion for the game, is eternal.
Follow Yuri Kageyama on Twitter at https://twitter.com/yurikageyama
Her work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/yuri-kageyama