Every VIFF I hope to see at least one film that’s a country’s official entry in the Best Foreign Language Film category for the Oscars. I had my first chance when I went to see 100 Yen Love: Japan’s official entry. It was not what I expected for a Japanese film. Nevertheless I was very impressed.
The story starts with Ichiko, a 32 year-old slacker. She became a downer with an I-don’t-care attitude since she dropped out of university. She lives at home with her mother who owns a restaurant and her yet-to-be-divorced sister and young son. For the heck of it, she applies for a job at the 100 Yen Store. During her nightshifts, she deals with her boss, a talkative creepy co-worker named Noma and a homeless woman who comes frequently in the back area to take food past the best before date.
Ichiko doesn’t expect much to happen but walking to work, she passes a boxing gym and there’s a man training there that catches her eye. His name is Yuji and he also visits the store frequently to buy bananas to which Noma calls him ‘Banana Boy.’ Yuji can sense Ichiko’s interest in him. One night Yuji buys the bananas but instead of paying, he gives Ichiko and Noma tickets to the fight. They go with Noma being a creepy partner and Yuji loses. At the dinner after the fight, Noma lies to Yuji claiming he’s her boyfriend. Then Noma goes all berserk overnight on as he rapes Ichiko and takes money from the 100 Yen Store till.
Ichiko changes after the rape. Still an employee at the 100 Yen store, she’s now Yuji’s girlfriend and she takes an interest in the boxing gym Yuji is no longer a part of as he had passed the maximum age of fighting at 37. At first she just goes there for the exercises. However things change after Yuji gets a job with a tofu delivery company and has an affair with a female carter. That infuriates Ichiko to move back with her mother and take her boxing lessons seriously. It even gives her a desire to want to be a fighter herself and even a hunger to win.
She’s given her first and possibly only fight as the maximum age for females is 33. She uses this as an opportunity for Yuji to prove his love to her. At the fight, family gather and Ichiko is hungry to win. However her opponent is one who’s already won four fights with a KO. This sets up for an ending that’s unexpected, bittersweet but positive and humorous.
I know I’ve talked a lot about foreign ‘movies’ being shown at this VIFF and other VIFFs. This goes to show that other countries are in the stage where they want to move away from strictly making films and move onto making movies that delight crowds. And not just movies of anything or something too simple, movies with something. I’m sure I was like a lot of people that think that when they go to see a film from Japan, we expect it to come from a director that wants to be the next Akira Kurosawa. I didn’t see anything in the film that made me think Masaharu Take wanted to follow in Kurosawa’s foot steeps. Guess I should adjust my expectations.
One thing that makes this film succeed as a movie is that there a lot of themes that are universal. There’s people that are slackers. There are slackers that ‘gave up’ because they slipped below expectations, including their own. There are jobs in which they hate doing and are ‘dead ends.’ There’s love and the complicated love triangles that come with it. And there’s the desire to want to move out of the shell of being a misfit and want to succeed. There’s even the 100 Yen Store which would be Japan’s equivalent to our Dollar Stores. I can see people in many countries, including here in North America, identifying with many of the themes in the film despite it taking place in Japan and in Japanese.
However the thing that grabs me most about the movie is that it consists of a lot of underachieve characters and underachiever scenarios but it’s taking place in Japan. I admit it I’m guilty like a lot of other people who have believed in the stereotype of the Japanese as people of high standards, people determined to succeed, people who go through strict competitive education programs to achieve great things. Here we have a slacker who appears done with life, a single-mother sister who returned to living at home, a convenience store owner, a loser who’s a fail at just about everything including making friends, a homeless woman, a person who sells food on a bike-cart and a person who wants to achieve in sports. These are people contrary to what we expect to see in Japan. It’s a reminder there are people like that in every country, even Japan. Sometimes I think that was the point that Take and scriptwriter Shin Adachi was to show the rest of the world. This is a story consisting of Japanese people we all forgot about.
Take and Adachi did a great job with a script that’s relatable and universal. However it was chancy too as including a rape scene in a comedy is very risky. Nevertheless they pulled it off well. Top nods however go to Sakura Ando for playing Ichiko. The whole story rested on her shoulders. She had to make it work. She even had to transform Ichiko from this 32 year-old slacker who couldn’t care less about the world to a woman with ambition and make it work. It paid off even to the point the sudden transition of Ichiko from the walking dead to a woman with a hunger worked. Sudden transitions like that don’t always work out well but Ichiko made it work. Additional kudos go to Hirofumi Arai as the boyfriend who is in the same boat as Ichiko but is romantically confused, Tadashi Sakata as the creepy Noma and Toshie Negishi as the entertaining homeless woman. The addition of a bluesy-sounding score adds to the story and even the humor.
100 Yen Love is an enjoyable Japanese movie. I didn’t know what to expect at first but I ended up enjoying it.