100 Yen Love (Hyakuen no koi)

Japan (2014) Dir. Masaharu Take

Korean-Japanese director Masaharu Take explores an esoteric avenue to personal achievement in this quirky comedy drama that hopes to provide inspiration to the least of us. Jobless and unskilled 32 year-old Ichiko (Sakura Ando) lives at home with her family above their small bento shop, idly wasting her days away. Her divorced sister Fumiko (Saori Koide) has also moved back home with her young son Taro, putting a strain on their relationship.

After one fight too many with Fumiko, Ichiko moves out, finds a tiny flat with some money her mother gave her and gets a night shift job at a 100 yen convenience store. While dealing with irritating co-workers and oddball customers, Ichiko takes a shine to a taciturn chap Yuji Kano (Hirofumi Arai), known as “Banana Man” as that is all he ever buys. Ichiko learns that Yuji is a boxer and is inspired when she sees him fight and although he lost the bout, Ichiko thinks this might be for her.

Labelling this as a “female Rocky” is lazy and spurious as both journeys and motives are entirely different, boxing being just one component of Ichiko’s story. Even with the positive progress that Ichiko makes in her life this isn’t designed to be the same feel good film that Rocky was – you won’t find any triumphant or emotional jubilation to end this film on a mawkish and sentimental note.

Is that a spoiler? Well, as mentioned earlier this is a different type of film where the journey and goals are worlds apart with pugilism being the only major connection. Take and regular writing collaborator Shin Adachi are casting a wry eye over the hikikimori phenomenon, using Ichiko as a totem to warn youngsters away from wasting their lives, exploring the possibilities for rehabilitation and re-entry into society.

There is the danger that Ichiko is perhaps an extreme example to shock people into not succumbing to the hikikimori lifestyle – ironically they’d have to wait for the DVD release first – or to represent these people to the mainstream audiences but the tone of the film is too light for that. Yes, Ichiko is lazy, truculent, ill-mannered, lacking social skills and a slovenly dresser but she is not portrayed as an alien.

In fact, when she starts her job at the 100 Yen store, Ichiko is arguably the most “normal” of the bunch there. Her manager (Shohei Uno) is a daydreamer, Sada (Hiroki Okita) is fussy and uptight, and Noma (Tadashi Sakata) never shuts up. And while Yuji is a curious customer, a former employee Ikeuchi (Toshie Negishi) shows up every night to steal leftover food from the storeroom!

Noma becomes a nuisance for Ichiko, albeit a pivotal one, taking Ichiko to see Yuji fight then after wards raping her at a love hotel. This is the turning point that makes boxing seem like a solution to Ichiko’s problems, yet after she starts training she moves in with Yuji who has since quit after losing his fight. While Ichiko works herself to state of illness, Yuji runs off with a younger girl, firing a second rocket up Ichiko’s backside, all the way to her first fight.

At this juncture the film does veer towards a conventional sports drama as Ichiko at 32, is one year from her “cut off” point to enter boxing, yet not only gets into shape but confounds everyone’s expectations with her early success. But, this growth is shown happening at an exponential rate, adding some welcome realism to what was previously a slightly offbeat film, ironically making the second half comparatively grounded.

It takes a while for Ichiko to form a proper fist, making a refreshing change from the tried and tested route knocking people out with a miracle punch, and it is quite a while before she is even allowed in the ring. She may not notice it but her confidence and people skills improve too and while she didn’t suffer fools gladly before, she doesn’t suffer them at all now – something her manager found out the hard way.

Even though the story of the seemingly useless caterpillar eventually blossoming into a fighting butterfly is a parable to inspire and instil a sense of positivity into the disenfranchised, there is no didactic intent in the script. If we are to take anything away from this, it would be to realise that finding one’s place in the world takes a bit longer for some people, while also recognising that we can’t and don’t all measure up to the same expectations.

Whether you want to see this as a “message” film or not, what cannot be questioned is the example being set on screen by leading lady Sakura Ando. Arguably one of the most committed actresses of her generation she dives headlong into the role of Ichiko, from surly misfit to potential pugilist, clearly having learned the necessary skills to make it convincing. Ando had to know what she was doing in order to get it so wrong at the start and the gradual transformation both physically and technically is startling.

If the climatic boxing match wasn’t genuine then kudos to Ando and her opponent for making look so authentic, aided by some frenetic and concentrated camerawork. Each punch looked and felt painful and I’m sure there was more than Ando’s superlative acting ability in relaying the pain, suffering and exhaustion.

Ultimately 100 Yen Love feels like two different films patched together yet one half absolutely needs the other to work. The leisurely pace of the opening half, taking almost an hour to get to the crux of the matter, threatens to undermine the rewards which eventual reveal themselves once the boxing training begins in earnest. But Ando’s sublime and acute performance, with able support from her co-stars, is engaging enough to cancel out any shortcomings.

For a unique take on a familiar theme 100 Yen Love definitely goes the distance!


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