Tokyo, 1972. In the midst of an all-singing though nonetheless violent street brawl, idealistic schoolgirl Ai Saotome (Emi Takei) happens across broodingly handsome Makoto Taiga (Satoshi Tsumabuki), a super-tough street punk with a bad attitude to match. Eleven years ago Makoto saved Ai’s life and she has been in love with him ever since. Hoping to better Makoto’s life, Ai arranges for him to be transferred to her prestigious school, to the despair of bespectacled nerd Hiroshi Iwashimizu (Takumi Saito) who burns with unrequited love. Seemingly indifferent to Ai’s love, Makoto takes advantage of her kindness and asks her for money. Rather than borrow from her smug wealthy parents, Ai gets a job as a sexy waitress at a surreal strip club where she is forced to cavort on-stage alongside naked gold painted dancers.
Either out of spite or covert kindness, Makoto reveals photos to Ai’s parents which gets him expelled to Honozono, a near post-apocalyptic high school overrun with unruly karate tough teens. Although gum-chewing she-devil Gumko (Sakura Ando) and her pack of unstoppable delinquent schoolgirls are all a-flutter over Makoto’s masculine swagger, he gains an enemy in Gonzo, a crazed thug struck with an affliction that has made him prematurely aged. Makoto also gets entangled with deceptively meek Yuki (Ito Ohno), a sulky sexpot harbouring a torrid secret that explodes when still hopelessly lovelorn Ai transfers to the same school.
It has become fashionable of late among fans of Japanese cult cinema to deride Takashi Miike as a sell-out given he no longer dabbles in the bloody yakuza thrillers or transgressive shock fare that made his name. But one would argue Miike’s current oddball semi-mainstream output is even more subversive and imaginative and upholds his reputation as a maverick auteur at the top of his game. After a run of sober, visceral samurai films, the ever-unpredictable Miike again exhibits his unique range with For Love’s Sake, an off-the-wall psychedelic Technicolor musical action comedy love story. Based on the 1973 manga Ai to Makoto by Ikki Kajiwara, co-creator of seminal baseball anime Star of the Giants (1968), the story was adapted for the screen three times before but with this version Miike arguably delivers a cracked masterpiece.
Despite critics comparing this with Bollywood, the film’s off-kilter melange of slapstick sadism and sing-along sentiment lensed in hallucinatory colours more faithfully evokes the tone of Seventies teen manga and anime. Even the manic motions of the appealing stars mimic the limited animation of vintage Japanimation. Check out Ai’s hilarious gestures throughout her solo number, her parents’ uninhibited ode to materialism, Gonzo announcing his presence by performing the theme to Ken the Wolf Boy (1963) or Makoto’s intimate encounter with sultry Yuki in a filth encrusted toilet cubicle where she sings a Meiko Kaji-style mournful ballad. As with Miike’s children’s movies Yatterman (2009) and The Great Yokai War (2005), he both celebrates and pokes gentle fun at the pop culture of his youth, viewing the pop Marxist philosophies and dewey-eyed romance of vintage manga, action movies and anime through the prism of post-modern self-awareness, though crucially not irony. In fact, what Miike sets out to do is altogether more daring. He adopts an irreverent style yet celebrates sincerity. Opening with a quote from, of all people, Indian Prime Minister Nehru (“Love is a battlefield using sincerity instead of arms”), the film is sincere in its admiration for the redemptive power of love which endures as a solid thematic spine throughout the ensuing craziness.
As implied by both the title and the heroine’s name (Ai means love in Japanese) this is a story of selfless love, the willingness to endure all kinds of pain and humiliation for the sake of that special someone. However, Makoto at first comes across such a selfish, abusive jerk we wonder what the near-angelically lovable Ai sees in him. His verbal and physical ripostes to his long-suffering love interest, not to mention the outrageous climax where he punches his way through an army of karate crazed schoolgirls, raise the old Miike bugbear of misogyny but the tone is one of slapstick excess and nowhere as offensive as his over-praised yakuza movies or shock tactic art dramas. Gradually we discover Makoto’s antisocial attitude masks a profound self-loathing and mistrust born from abandonment and abuse. We come to remember that love also means perceiving the goodness in people others cannot see. For devoted fans of the golden age of J-pop culture, the film’s allusions to delinquent schoolgirl classics, shojo manga, action heroine-cum-musical icon Meiko Kaji, bunraku theatre and the seminal high school anime of Tetsuya Chiba are a constant delight. At the same time Miike ingenious reworks classic motifs and themes for a younger generation.
Japan’s most controversial director, notorious for his dauntingly prolific output and willingness to push the boundaries of taste. Miike started working as an assistant director in the late 80s, before moving into making straight-to-video thrillers in 1991. He made his feature debut in 1995 with the violent cop thriller Shinjuku Triad Society, and since then has averaged around seven films year.