In my 50th WTF ASIA blogpost, I featured a Japanese musical about a young woman whose quest for love lands her in a world of violence and misery. Now, to mark two years at Manic Expression, I presentâ€¦uhâ€¦another one. You know those stories where a good girl falls for a bad boy? Crank that all the way up with the help of Takashi Miike.
Availableâ€¦on the internet. Approximately 135 minutes.
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 andâ€¦ermâ€¦bumped into each other. 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 Makotoâ€™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. Makotoâ€™s presence definitely upsets Iwashimizu, a fellow top student in the class who had declared his passionate and passively creepy love for Ai not too long ago. But Makoto is in love with Ai, and will do whatever it takes to make him see what goodness can do.
Along with convincing 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. She gets him a nice little apartment 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 takes a part-time job at a maid cafÃ©, which is against the school rules. Iwashimizu finds out and scolds Makoto for leading Ai to debase herself. Instead of feeling bad, though, Makoto takes pictures of Ai and tries to blackmail her parents. That, plus getting into another 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 intoâ€¦well, more fighting.
This movie is based on a manga series that was written in the mid-1970s calledÂ 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 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 musicalâ€¦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’sâ€¦except maybe the last two, I am a bit suspicious of those two. The movie kind of frontloads the songs, with six during the first have 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 screenâ€¦or at least lip-synchs and ambles around. And there is that here. Some people, like whoever made that poster at the top, have said that this movie was like something out of Bollywoodâ€¦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 singingâ€¦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 theâ€¦relationship between Ai and Makoto as one of opposition. Ai sees something in Makoto, something that maybe he does not see in himself. Her love is unwavering and impervious to logic, temptation, 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. Makoto is a violent thug who hates everyone, including the rich. 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. 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, Aiâ€™s love for him and determination to make him change his ways is portrayed not so much as naive, but outright crazy. In fact, all love in this story, reciprocated and unrequited, is portrayed as crazy. Actually, everything is crazy, to be fair.
I have seen this movie described as a satire, and 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. Gradually, though, the movie starts playing it for laughs and poking at it s 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, it just decided to stop playing around. 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. Somehow, becoming a rather straightforward drama makes this ending classic Miike.
Soâ€¦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 uncomfortableâ€¦maybe it will make you cry. If you can find it, then I recommend that you watch it.
WTF ASIA 101: The Mission (Hong Kong: 1999, approx. 85 minutes)
WTF ASIA 102: The Flower in Hell (South Korea: 1958, approx. 85 minutes)