To celebrate Valentine’s Day, I bring you a musical film from the master of romance…uh…Takashi Miike…erm…yeah!
It was 1961 when rich girl Saotome Ai met poor boy Taiga Makoto. They were both around six years old and skiing on their own and bumped into each other. Well, more like Ai started skiing too fast and called out for help. Makoto just bumped into her, knocking her over. And then he said that he would have punched her if he had known that she lived in the villa on the hill.
They would not meet again until they were seventeen. At this point, Ai is at the top of her class at an elite school while Makoto is a violent street youth. Ai is hanging around some place in Tokyo with her other rich friends when Makoto turns up, surrounded by a bunch of other delinquents. He fights off all of the other kids while Makoto and her friends watch.
Recognizing Makoto by the huge scar on his forehead, Ai decides that she has to stop the fight. So she get in between the combatants, shouting that violence was not the answer. Makoto now recognizes her from eleven years ago, but simply dismisses her as some bourgeois girl, and then slaps her when she continues to get in the way. When the police show up, all of the other delinquents run away, but Ai holds on to Makoto’s leg just long enough for the police to get him.
Makoto gets sent to a reform school, which looks more like a prison, but Ai convinces her parents to get him out of there and place him in her school, in her class. This does not sit well with the administration, particularly when his first act is to hit a teacher right in the nose.
Makoto’s presence definitely upsets Iwashimizu, a fellow top student in the class who had declared his intensely passionate and passively creepy love for Ai not too long ago. Such a nice guy. So nice that he does not seem to notice how scared his behavior makes her.
But Ai is in love with Makoto, and will do whatever it takes to make him see what goodness can do. Despite all evidence to the contrary, including Makoto’s own statements, she is convinced that he has a good heart. She declares her love for him in front of Iwashimizu and members of the school administration. No one knows what to make of it, least of all Makoto. But, she somehow manages to prevent them from expelling Makoto and calling the police on him.
Along with having convinced her parents to enroll Makoto in her school, she has also convinced them to give her some money to help him out, so that he is not too distracted by financial needs to study. Makoto has little intention of rehabilitating, but he plays along for a bit; free money. She gets him a nice little apartment (with a chandelier) and buys clothes and food for him.
Eventually, she determines that he will need more money, but cannot bring herself to ask her parents for more. So she…uh…takes a part-time job at a café. Getting a part-time job is against the school rules. Who needs rules, she says. Well, it turns out that it is a maid café. Ai is…apprehensive, but she takes the job. The work is degrading and the customers are sleazebags, but Ai continues, reasoning that she has to experience the same struggles as his in order to understand him. I am not sure that his struggles include working in a maid café.
More along the lines of getting in fights with lots of people.
Iwashimizu finds out about Ai getting the job…because he was following her. He scolds Makoto for leading Ai to debase herself, even though Makoto had no idea what she was doing until just then. Iwashimizu tries to guilt him into getting her to stop. Instead, Makoto takes pictures of Ai at work and tries to blackmail her parents, demanding a million yen to keep quiet. When they tell Ai what happened, she refuses to believe it.
The blackmail attempt, on top of getting into that street fight, is enough to get Makoto expelled. However, instead of going to reform school, he goes to some run down school in some other part of Tokyo that seems more like a gang headquarters than an actual school.
There, Makoto runs afoul of both the female and male branches of the main gang. As Ai descends into quiet despair, Makoto descends into, well, more fighting.
This movie is based on a manga series that was written in the mid-1970s called Ai to Makoto, which roughly translates as Love and Truth. In other words, Ai is madly in love with Makoto and hopes that her love can change him into a good person, while Makoto truly does not care for any of that. The manga also spawned a television show as well as three movies. What prompted Takashi Miike to make a fourth movie nearly forty years later is a mystery to me, but he is Takashi Miike and can do whatever he wants. Maybe he was feeling nostalgic for his youth, as he was maybe slightly younger than the main characters when he first came across the original manga, show, and movies. I cannot say for certain how faithful this movie is to either the content or tone of the source material, though the short comment that I saw about one of the older movies was that the violence and kooky characters were there from the beginning. In any case, there was enough room in there for this movie to go crazy. It is hardly as graphic or as depraved as some of things that Miike has done, but it is still quite audacious in parts.
So, as stated before, this is a musical of sorts. There are nine songs, and most of them seem to be either from the early 70’s or made in the style of the early 70’s except maybe the last two, and I am a bit suspicious of those two. The movie kind of frontloads the songs, with six during the first half and three spread out in the second. In a couple of points in the first half, it seems as if the movie has not gone for three minutes when another song comes on. In the second half, one might start to wonder at times if someone forgot that this was a musical.
Now, a musical usually requires that a character sings and dances on screen or at least lip-syncs and ambles around. And there is that here. Some people, like whoever made that DVD cover on the top, have said that this movie was like something out of Bollywood. Well, some people are completely wrong. Usually, in Bollywood films and other musicals, most of the characters in that scene are involved in the singing and dancing as well. Or, they are least taken in by what is going on. It can be an intimate moment or a huge spectacle. Not here. Here, it is pretty much only one person singing; maybe two, but usually only one. And any other character who takes part in the dancing does so because he or she is already of the same mindset as the one singing. This is the case with the fighting scenes, when Makoto is facing off against gangs. Pretty much all of the other characters are either looking on in annoyance, staring in confusion, backing off nervously, or cowering in terror. Japanese society is known for being reserved, so outward displays of emotion can be uncomfortable already. Just imagine if someone doing that started singing and flailing around all over the place. You would be weirded out as well. Maybe you would also try running away, thinking that person was having a psychotic break and could attack you at any moment.
The movie, like at least one that came before it, opens with extracts from a letter that Jawaharlal Nehru of India had written to his daughter, Indira Gandhi, where he states that love is a battle and that killing oneself is a way to win. I am not sure if this is a real letter, as I could find nothing from a preliminary search except for articles relating directly to the movies. So, it may very well be fake. Regardless, it sets the tone of the relationship between Ai and Makoto as one of opposition. The sheltered and innocent Ai sees something in Makoto, something that maybe he does not see in himself. Her love is unwavering and impervious to logic, temptation, or force. She feels indebted to him for whatever reason, and she believes that she must show him how to be a better person in order to allow him to live a life where he is not constantly in danger. And in doing so, she is willing to risk her reputation and put herself in dangerous situations.
Makoto is a violent thug who hates everyone, especially the rich, but especially everyone else. Violence is his world, so violence is his home. He wants nothing to do with Ai except when he can use her liberal do-gooderness to his advantage. The movie makes almost no attempt to make Makoto seem sympathetic or appealing. Maybe a little edgy cool, The first scene of them as little kids has him saying that he is going to punch her and the first scene of them as teenagers has him hitting her. He is not a good person. Even the little bit of backstory that he gets does not really let him off the hook for his behavior or his attitude.
As such, Ai’s love for him and determination to make him change his ways is portrayed not so much as naïve, but outright delusional. In fact, all love in this story, reciprocated and unrequited, is portrayed as crazy. To be fair, though, everything in this movie is crazy.
I have seen this movie described as a satire of certain romance stories. While it may seem that way at first, I am not so sure. Yes, it takes the good girl/bad boy tropes to a rather extreme level, so that it could seem to be deliberately over the top to the point of abuse. Gradually, though, the movie starts playing it for laughs and poking at its problems less and less. And when it seems as if the movie might be finishing up, it turns out that it still has around twenty minutes left to go. And those last twenty minutes are definitely not like the first twenty. It is not as if the movie forgot what it was or suddenly got darker than before, it just decided to stop playing around as much. The satirical commentary and manic fun dissipates, perhaps making one unsure what to think or feel about what is going on and with no idea about what the movie is trying to say. So, if you had issues with the movie indulging in a certain thing before with the flimsiest of justification, know that the movie ramps it up. Somehow, becoming a rather straightforward drama makes this ending classic Miike.
So, if you are looking for a slightly different kind of romantic comedy, you might like this. If you hate romance movies, you might like this even more. It will make you laugh, it will make you somewhat uncomfortable, then maybe it will make you cry. If you can find it, then I recommend that you watch it.
WTF ASIA 148: The Blue Kite (China: 1993, approx. 140 minutes)
WTF ASIA 149: Secret Sunshine (South Korea: 2007, approx. 143 minutes)