Shogi, Japanese chess, is a popular but unforgiving game, with relatively few people making it to the upper echelons of top players. “Awake” is inspired by real events of the Denousen tournament which pitched an elite Shogi player against the best computer. The film follows Eiichi Kiyota (Ryo Yoshizawa), a programmer who creates the system “Awake” that is able to compete at an incredibly high level. As a child Kiyota attended a shogi academy where he met Riku Asakawa (Ryuya Wakaba), who would go on to be one of the country’s top player and would be the one to challenge Kiyota’s computer.
Inspired by true events, the film follows the formula of a sports movie, with the central rivalry driving the action. Kiyota, a strong player in his own right, feels disappointed that he is unable to compete with the very best, unfortunately finding himself in a club with Asakawa, whose abilities are largely unmatched. Kiyota then devotes himself to creating the AI system that he hopes will be able to beat Asakawa, along with the help of Isono (Motoko Ochiai), the lone misanthropic member of his University’s computing club. Large parts of the film are taken up with shogi matches, and it will no doubt add a level of enjoyment if you understand the game. Even for those less familiar, the film does a solid job of explaining what is going on and when players reach a crucial moment or make a serious blunder. A relatively straightforward story and an easy watch. The performances from the two leads Eiichi Kiyota and Ryuya Wakaba, demonstrate these chracters dedication, concentration and determination to win. Writer and director Atsuhiro Yamada crafts a simple yet effective tale of sporting rivals, showing the rise of the two young men from youths at their shogi academy, through their divergent careers. The single-minded focus they share for the game is reflected in the film also with very little extraneous material about their lives. We see Kiyota’s father and a small number of supporting characters, but for the most part the narrative remains fixed on their desire to excel in shogi.
While the film is ostensibly about the battle between human and AI, and questioning what future there is for humans when computers finally become unbeatable; there is a more human and emotional theme running throughout. The teacher at the shogi school explains to the youths there that very few individuals ever make it as a professional. While we are brought up to do our best, it is interesting to consider what happens when we fail to achieve what we set out to; or more troubling when we see someone who is better at the thing we are most passionate about. Kiyota’s story is a familiar one, since almost everybody will be somewhere below the top spot in any chosen sport, activity, or profession. His story shows how he is able to take his intelligence and pour it into a second hobby, that of programming, able to memorise large texts and learn quickly the skills he needs. He also seems to be at peace with the fact that his journey to becoming a professional shogi player was cut short, and that the most important thing is continuing to improve even if you never achieve perfection.