By Spank The Monkey
At the Cannes festival last month, you could see – and hear, thanks to some conspicuous booing – the breakdown of the love-in between Western critics and Japanese director Takashi Miike, as his latest thriller Shield Of Straw got very short shrift indeed. Does this mark the end of Miike’s career as the go-to director for Asian weirdness? I suppose it depends on whether you trust the judgment of the sort of wankers who think that yelling at projected images will improve them.
Perhaps it’s the end of the respectable phase of Miike’s career – after a couple of years of working on the sort of serious drama that attracts festival programmers, he’s going back to just doing whatever takes his fancy. That’s not to say the boo-ers are wrong, though: in a career that’s getting close to hitting the 100 feature mark, he’s made a couple of undeniable stinkers. But no single film in his canon gives you any idea what the ones either side of it will be like. We can go back in time just one year – to June 2012, and the Japanese theatrical release of For Love’s Sake, now available in the UK – for a good example of that.
I’ve mentioned before that Japanese cinema is going through a thin patch in terms of original ideas, even when compared against Hollywood: virtually every movie that comes out these days is adapted from material that originated elsewhere. Of the three that Miike made in 2012, one was based on a video game (Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney), one was adapted from a novel (Lesson Of The Evil), and the one we’re discussing here was based on a manga. It was published in the seventies as Ai to Makoto, and Miike is quite upfront in the film’s making-of documentary (included on Third Window’s UK release) that he’s aiming squarely for the nostalgia market, keeping the period setting and targeting the manga’s original readers.
Ai and Makoto are the names of the central characters, but those names also have alternative meanings, so the Japanese title can be read as Love And Sincerity. Ai Satome (Emi Takei) is a rich girl, the daughter of one of Tokyo’s most influential families. Makoto Taiga (Satoshi Tsumabuki) is a poor boy, always getting into fights. The two of them first meet as youngsters, when Makoto rescues Ai after a skiing accident (an opening sequence shown here in animated form, as a sop to fans of the comic). Several years later their paths cross again, when a gang fight breaks out near Ai and her friends, with Makoto at the centre.
Within seconds, the parameters of their relationship are established. Ai throws herself at Makoto’s feet, insisting that violence is not the solution to life’s problems: Makoto tells her to mind her own business, punching policemen in the face while Ai is still hanging off his leg. This unrequited love stays unrequited for some time, despite Ai’s best efforts to redeem him. She uses her family influence to have Makoto transferred to her posh school, but in no time he’s been expelled and transferred to the worst school in town. Ai then has to try and protect him from the dangers that lurk there, many of which are female: notably the monstrous Gumko (Sakura Ando) and the superficially less terrifying Yuki (Ito Ohno).
Throw in a couple of other romances on the side – including the equally unrequited longing of Hiroshi (Takumi Saito) for his classmate Ai – and the stage is set for an over-the-top teen melodrama, with a very uncertain mixture of broad comedy, slushy romance and violent action. It would take something unusual to pull all these tonally incompatible strands together into something watchable. That, presumably, is why we have the songs.
This is, of course, Miike’s second musical. A decade earlier, he took a Korean black comedy called The Quiet Family and transformed it into a surreal song-and-dance-fest called The Happiness Of The Katakuris. The songs in Katakuris are very obviously played for laughs: partly because of the contrast with the horrific situation, partly because nobody on screen was especially good at singing or dancing. (After a couple of viewings, you notice that the youngest child of the family has obviously been given no choreography instructions other than to just follow what everyone else is doing.)
For Love’s Sake is actually that most bastardised of forms, the jukebox musical – the songs are all classic pop tunes from the Showa era, hammered down to fit into a pre-existing plot. But they’re the perfect choice for an overheated teenage romance, specifically chosen to overheat things that little bit more. The choreography goes down a couple of odd paths – I’m particularly intrigued by a gesture that accompanies the mention of ‘love’ in two songs, the singer using one hand to mime their nose getting bigger like Pinocchio – but there’s actual choreography involved, and that makes a change.
Without the songs, I suspect For Love’s Sake wouldn’t actually hold together: the wavering tone, with unexpected bursts of actual emotion amidst all the overacting and violence, needs the music in there to paper over the cracks. Part of the problem is that the characters of Ai and Makoto never really change over the course of the film. Ai’s devotion to Makoto in the face of his utter contempt is so constant, you can’t tell whether you’re meant to find it touching or pig-headed. Makoto’s stoic indifference is the source of some of the best laughs in the film, but it’s largely depicted in terms of fight sequences that seem to go on for several hours, and never result in him picking up so much as a scratch. (Unless he’s fighting that guy with the ageing disease. Long story.)
As has been previously established on this site, there’s no such thing as a typical Miike film. You could argue that the comic edge to the violent scenes is the sort of thing we associate with him – for example, the escalation of Makoto’s fight scenes towards a climax where he has to beat up a couple of dozen feral schoolgirls. But if there’s a characteristic that marks this out as a late period Miike film, it would have to be overlength. For Love’s Sake comes in at two and a quarter hours, as he feels the need to not only cram in every idea that occurs to him, but also over-extend and repeat visual gags in the hope that this will make them funnier.
Back when Miike was directing seven features in a year, they were all short sharp movies that took you by surprise – and if some of them were duffers, at least those could be safely ignored. Now he’s doing two or three big films a year, their high and low points cancel each other out over their extended running time. On balance, the high points of For Love’s Sake outweigh the low, and there’s plenty of fun to be had. But with forty minutes or so of padding removed, it could have taken the top of your head off the way that Miike’s early films did.
For Love’s Sake is out now on DVD and Blu-ray from Third Window Films.
Spank The Monkey insert justification of professional status here.