Living the Game doc chronicles Street Fighter champions' guts, glory and anguish
Film debuts as part of Made in Japan slate at Toronto's Hot Docs
The sounds that define the Japanese documentary Living the Game aren't cheering crowds or any single person's voice. Rather, they are the constant clicks and clacks of an arcade stick's buttons.
While many grew up mashing the buttons on an arcade cabinet or Super Nintendo controller while playing Street Fighter 2, the rhythm of the top players' button presses are near-hypnotic.
Their fingers thrum over the controllers — slab-like boards with a joystick and six to eight convex buttons — like a pianist performing at Carnegie Hall.
Director Takao Gotsu chronicles the lives of five of the most prolific Street Fighter players as they fight for glory, prize money and perhaps a little more respect from society at large in Living the Game, premiering at Toronto's Hot Docs festival.
While the highest, most technical level of competition may be inscrutable to casual or non-gamers, Gotsu focuses on human stories that are compelling to viewers regardless of whether they know what a Dragon Punch is.
Practising in his cramped Tokyo apartment, Yusuke Momochi demonstrates to Gotsu how he presses two buttons in sequence — 1/60th of a second apart.
Street Fighter 4 (released in 2008), he explains, animates at 60 frames-per-second, so even that minuscule sliver of time could mean the difference between victory or defeat. At the highest level of competition, it could cost him tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars.
No human can do this consistently, so Momochi practises this and other tricks for up to 10 hours a day to prepare.
"I practise this to increase my chances by even a tenth of a per cent," he explains, proceeding to show off the gnarly growths of bone and skin on his lower palms, where he rests his hand on the joystick.
At Hot Docs earlier this week, Gotsu pointed out to CBC News that "gamers are living in a 60 frames-per-second world."
The Beast vs. The Genius
DaigoUmehara, the film's other main focus, is comparatively at ease just about everywhere he goes.
At 35, he's a patriarch of the fighting game community (FGC for short), having won nearly every top trophy the scene has to offer. His unpredictable, crowd-pleasing play style is a clear contrast to the meticulous and calculating Momochi.
Gamers stop him in the streets to ask for selfies. He counts rapper Lupe Fiasco as among his most vocal fans. In Japan, he's the closest to a crossover superstar the FGC has.
Most importantly, in terms of Living the Game's narrative, Momochi hasn't been able to defeat the breezy Umehara one-on-one in a top-level tournament.
The differences between Gotsu's primary subjects become instantly clear. It's even in their nicknames: Umehara is known as "The Beast," while Momochi is "The Genius."
Street Fighter growing
As he follows Umehara, Momochi and others, Gotsu also traces the exponential growth of competitive Street Fighter over the last 15 or so years.
Evolution Championship Series (EVO), the biggest single gathering of fighting game fans, gathered 700 players into a university auditorium in 2004. In 2016, it featured 5,000 competitors, and the finals were broadcast on ESPN2 from Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas.
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Living the Game occasionally gets bogged down in the mechanics of the game itself. The film frequently provides frame-by-frame explanations of what's happening in the game, apparently in the hopes of illuminating details like Momochi's 1/60th-of-a-second joystick skills that would be imperceptible to the casual viewer.
Thankfully, however, Gotsu focuses mostly on the very human drama and tensions encountered by the players on the tournament circuit.
Umehara speaks at length about how he felt increasingly like a social outcast as he became more successful at Street Fighter.
"I thought gaming was self-destructive, that it was poison. It's a secret life. You can't tell people about it," says Umehara, who argues that "most of society disapproves of gaming."
Momochi, meanwhile, trains with a focus bordering on obsession in the hopes of one day defeating Umehara. The documentary shows that his hermit-like focus on training has put a strain on his relationship with his girlfriend Yuko Kusachi, who competes under the alias Choco Blanka.
"Momochi left his job and everything to become a gamer, so his future depended upon this success, hence the added pressure," Gotsu said at Hot Docs.
Gamers and fighting game fans will clearly get more out of Living The Game than non-gamers because they'll recognize the players and other characters in the background.
But anyone can appreciate a "champion versus rival" story told as well as this, featuring two principal characters with such starkly contrasting personalities.
Living the Game will screen Sunday evening at the Scotiabank Theatre in Toronto.