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Friday, June 15, 2012

'Ai to Makoto (For Love's Sake)'

Takashi Miike has become the Japanese equivalent of Tim Burton, the American director who found the box-office sweet spot between cult quirk and mainstream tastes (though the weak returns of his latest, "Dark Shadows," suggest he may be losing it). Fans who loved the wild, crazy Miike of 1999's "Odishon (Audition)" and 2001's "Koroshiya 1 (Ichi the Killer)" — extreme films that jolted and amused with their violent black humor — have viewed his rise to multiplex respectability with dismay. They will probably also not care for his latest, "Ai to Makoto (For Love's Sake)," a sort of "Romeo and Juliet" in reverse that screened out of competition at this year's Cannes Film Festival.

Ai to Makoto (For Love's Sake) Rating: (3 out of 5)
★ ★ ★
Ai to Makoto (For Love's Sake)
Ai love you: Emi Takei (left) and Satoshi Tsumabuki play the title characters in "Ai to Makoto," which has the somewhat sappy English name "For Love's Sake." Based on a 1970s manga, Takashi Miike's film is awash with pop-culture in-jokes and at times feels tired.

Director: Takashi Miike
Running time: 134 minutes
Language: Japanese
Opens June 16, 2012
[See Japan Times movie listing]

Based on a mid-1970s manga by Ikki Kajiwara that spawned three live-action films prior to Miike's, as well as a live-action TV series, "For Love's Sake" is a remix of past Miike films, from its bad-boy brawls (also found in 2007's "Kurozu Zero [Crows Zero]") and campy musical numbers (see 2001's "Katakuri-ke no Kofuku [The Happiness of the Katakuris]") to its inspiration in a 1970s cult hit (similar to 2009's "Yatterman").

The film is clever and cheeky, but also in-jokey and repetitive, as though Miike were indulging in a big private tribute to the pop detritus of his youth (he was born in 1960), while he recycles signature tropes like an aging metal guitarist still full of energy, but short of new riffs.

The title leads are Ai Saotome (Emi Takei), a naive, pure-hearted rich girl, and Makoto Taiga (Satoshi Tsumabuki), a street punk who once rescued Ai as a child — and has been her shining hero ever since. In 1972, 11 years after this fateful first encounter, they run into each other in Tokyo's Kabukicho district, then a magnet for the discontented young as well as drunken salarymen.

Makoto, who is one of the former, soon finds himself in a reformatory after wasting a gang of toughs in the first of the film's many one-against-all fights. Persuading her parents to pull strings, Ai has him transferred to her tiny private school, where he immediately gets into trouble with the teachers — and excites the jealousy of Iwashimizu (Takumi Saito), a gawky, bespectacled honor student smitten with Ai and, as he dramatically announces, willing to die for her.

This rival wins a victory when Makoto is kicked out of Ai's academy and transfers to a commercial high school overrun with delinquents (see the rubbish-strewn, graffiti-covered institution of lower learning in "Crows Zero" for a previous example). There our hero attracts the attention of Gamuko (Sakura Ando), a gum-chewing spitfire sukeban (leader of a delinquent girl gang), and Yuki (Ito Ono), a smart, quiet, but spookily intense girl who is the heroine of her own inner gothic novel. But they haven't counted on Ai, who is not about to give up Makoto to anyone, though he rebuffs her every advance.

As though to exhibit the toughness cred he acquired as the tortured actor in 2011's "Sumagura (Smuggler)" and the hunted killer in 2010's "Akunin (Villain)," Tsumabuki sneers, struts and punches his way through the role of Makoto, while giving his ostensible love objects little more than contemptuous snorts and withering retorts. Meanwhile, newcomer Takei shines (or rather angelically glows) as the sweet-faced do-gooder Ai, stubbornly bent on rescuing Makoto from himself — and for herself. Unlike actors in manga adaptations who loudly signal "comedy" with every over-strained grimace, Tsumabuki and Takei approach their cartoonish roles with enough seriousness, as well as ironic distance, to make them funny.

Also, the musical numbers, which feature period pop hits as well as original songs by composer/producer Takeshi Kobayashi, are true to their cheesy, infectiously listenable, mid-Showa Era (1926-1989) sources. Those expecting Broadway polish have obviously never seen the clunky TV song shows on which many of these tunes first appeared.

But as fight scene followed similarly staged fight scene and Makoto kept batting away Ai and the other would-be amours like so many pesky flies, my mind strayed to thoughts of why so many recent Japanese films feel too labored and long. Perhaps before filming "For Love's Sake," Miike should have screened that 82-minute marvel of pop parody compression, "This is Spinal Tap."

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