Initiation Love (Inishiêshon rabu)

Japan (2015) Dir. Yukihiko Tsutsumi

The plot for this film, loosely adaptation from the novel of the same name by Kurumi Inui, may read like a bog standard romantic drama but when the first thing we see on the screen is a message asking us not to reveal a forthcoming “big surprise”, our interest is now peaked as to what actually awaits us.

Split into two parts – Side A and Side B – the story begins in 1987, Shizuoka City and a group of old school friends are having a reunion dinner, but as the male to female ratio is uneven chubby loner Yuki Suzuki (Shota Matsuda) is invited to attend. Among the four girls at the dinner is lively dental assistant Mayuko Naruoka (Atsuko Maeda) who catches Yuki’s eye although he knows he doesn’t stand a chance in hell with her.

At the next get together at the beach Mayuko stuns Yuki by giving him her phone number, which after many aborted attempts, he finally calls and the pair go on a date. They later become a couple, nicknaming each other “Takkun” and “Mayu” with the former gradually changing for the better. Jumping forward a few months, a slimmer, more dashing Takkun is transferred by his boss to work in Tokyo, leading to the dreaded long distance romance.

Readers of the original novel, once said to be unfilmable, went into it without knowing that there would be a big surprise waiting for them thus they don’t spend the entire time wondering what it is and when it will occur. Obviously if they also saw this film after reading the novel then they’d already know the ending so that sense of wonder and anticipation isn’t there for them. Hopefully they kept the surprise to themselves.

In many ways this is a stroke of genius (Billy Wilder actually did this with Witness For The Prosecution in 1957 but left the request until the end of the film) as it ensures the audience will stay with this until the end for this big surprise. The risk however is that the central story isn’t anything startling original and one can guess how it will develop once it settles down.

Yukihiko Tsutsumi, who has helmed many manga adaptations for the big screen including 20th Century Boys and Beck, sets himself the unenviable task of doing Inui’s novel justice while keeping the audience invested in the story. Having not read the novel it is said there have been some changes made by Tsutsumi, to what extent I can’t say but the one presented here is both familiar yet with a distinct flavour of its own.

The first surprise is obviously how (and why) Mayu should fancy Takkun when he is what many of us would perceive to be atypical of “her type”. Not that we should be so judgemental as the heart wants what it wants, opposite attracts etc. but it is played out as something so natural that we actually root for the pudgy Takkun and not carry any suspicions about Mayu’s motives at all.

Well not much. Mayu is excessively upbeat and her availability to Takkun does seem too convenient, her perkiness and not so subtle hints of what she would like (certain places for dinner, a car, new clothes for Takkun) do have an underlying sense of creepiness to wonder if her exuberance is masking a secret pain.

Yet it is not until Side B when distance is put between them due to Takkun’s job in Tokyo that the crack begin to show in the relationship. Takkun’s weekly visits home are marred by his tiredness and soon they become fortnightly visits. Meanwhile in Tokyo and Takkun has to contend with the attentions of female colleague Miyako Ishimaru (Fumino Kimura), who is everything Mayu isn’t – smart, classy, less clingy and on the level.

If you are rolling your eyes at the clichés stop right there – they may be necessary evils but in the grand scheme of things they make all the difference once the big surprise comes. It helps greatly that the characters are engaging and the set ups aren’t as predictable as you might think. The script toys with many of the genre conventions but Tsutsumi reads the moment impeccably so that when one does arise we are genuinely invested.

The film opens quite lightly with some US teen comedy affectations to sway us that this will be a fluffy outing – when Mayu is introduced she get the slow motion, soft focus treatment with animated flowers and cheesy musical motif. A things progress this jolly veneer slips and we enter into a deep and serious character study of people falling in and out of love and how they deal with the inherent hang-ups.

A good story needs a good cast to bring it to life and Tsutsumi chose well. Atsuko Maeda is acutely deceptive as Mayu, her giggly cutesy side presumably drawn from her AKB48 days while the dramatic side reveals her maturity as an actress. Shota Matsuda creates a beguiling character in Takkun, undergoing a remarkable personality change without betraying his original persona, neatly offset by Fumino Kimura’s tight performance as the in control Miyako.

Obviously, like a good chap I’m not going to reveal the big surprise but I will say it elicited a “What the..?” from me. But the film is much more than that so don’t be fooled into thinking this is a singular gimmick to make you sit through 100 minutes of run-of-the-mill pap for a shock ending. As a cute bonus, many of the 80’s artefacts are explained during the end credits for modern audiences who won’t be familiar with cassettes, rotary phones or 80’s fashion!

Ironically the familiar plot is one reason why Initiation Love works so well, with the big surprise being the icing on a nourishing, enjoyable, if slickly made cake, rather than a cheap ploy to encourage your interest. A very pleasant surprise indeed.