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Year: 2002
Country:
Japan
Language: Japanese
Director: Tengan Daisuke
Screenplay: Tengan Daisuke
Cinematography: Yi Yi-shu
Soundscore: Kumagai Yoko, Urayama Hidehiko
Cast: Kato Haruhiko, Tomosaka Rie, Ishibashi Ryo
Runtime: 118 min
Trailer: on YouTube

Seen at a screening as part of the Films at the Embassy of Japan programme.

The Olympics are nearly upon London and it is becoming more obvious every day. The fact that the monthly film screening at the Embassy of Japan took place a week earlier than normally – presumably to avoid the chaos of the Olympics’ opening days – was one indicator, but so was the choice of film screened: Aiki, after all, is a tale of the powerful spirit of sport.

Ashihara Taichi (Kato Haruhiko) is a young boxer training for the newcomer championship. After winning a match one day, he heads home elated on his motorbike with his girlfriend Chika. His dreams for the future are shattered when they get into a life-changing accident. While Chika only breaks a leg, Taichi is not so lucky. He wakes up in the hospital after a 3-day coma, paralysed from waist down with no hope of ever walking – let alone boxing – again.

Taichi falls into a deep depression, breaking up with his girlfriend and pushing all of his friends away. He attempts suicide but is stopped by his hospital roommate, a middle-aged man who has been paraplegic for three years and makes Taichi promise to at least try living for a year to see if he can find joy again. But Taichi struggles, and a year on, his despair is as deep as ever as, unable to find anyone willing to employ him, he whiles away his time at home during the day and drinks through the nights. When he picks a fight with thugs in the street and they turn to beat him up, he welcomes it, begging them to kill him. However, Taichi is rescued by a yakuza, an encounter that sets off a chain of fortunate happenings, leading him, first, to a part-time job at a night fair, then to a rather eccentric girl of the name Samako (Tomosaka Rie), and, finally, to a master of aiki-jūjutsu (Ishibashi Ryo). The latter crosses his path when Taichi goes to see Samako, who works as a shrine maiden. He observes a performance of aiki at the temple, noticing that unlike most other martial arts some movements do not require the use of legs.

Morning after a night of drinking.

The performance – and the realisation that this is a sport he may be able to partake in – awakens something deep inside of Taichi again: a hope, a desire to strive for something, a reason to live. As he begins to train with the master, Taichi finds meaning in life again, further employment opportunities arising, friendships – some rather unconventional ones – forming and even feelings of love slowly being kindled again.

Aiki features several rather interesting characters. The first is Taichi himself, not only for the immense transformation he undergoes both physically as well as mentally, but for the fact that his real-life inspiration was the story of a Danish man: Ole Kingston Jensen, who started practicing Daito-ryu Aikijujutsu Roppokai after having been paralysed from waist down and who is now its highest non-Japanese member. Secondary characters are just as intriguing, whether the gruff roommate who flirts with nurses in the hope that he may be able to stay at the hospital longer and be less of a burden to his family or the aiki master that curiously enough is just a regular salary man by day. The backstories of these characters however are no more than briefly sketched, something that feels like a bit of a loss. Only Samako’s persona is filled out more: She is somewhat of a free bird, working not only at the shrine but also in gambling. She has little concern for what others may think and seems fearless. Her carefree attitude means that she treats Taichi no different from anyone else, never offering him any pity or hesitation, but simply approaching him as a person. Happy as Samako may seem, there are also hints of a complicated past, something that is confirmed but not explained when she later disappears. This turn is part of a generally rather open ending, but serves the film well as a too predictable storyline is avoided (i.e. the boy-save-girl scenario, or, in this case, the ‘cripple turns hero by finally overcoming the challenge of his handicap and saving the damsel in distress’).

Victorious.

Predictability, however, is not entirely absent. There are scenes that feel staged, created for a film in ways we have seen before rather than sincerely telling a story. This in particular applies to the ‘battle’ of the different martial arts in front of a Japanese-culture loving prince from the Middle East, which relies on cliché characterisation of rivals and feels like a too fabricated climax. What becomes apparent here is that Tengan Daisuke lacks the finesse of a master director. Although he has a good story in his hands, he does not demonstrate either the sort of perceptiveness that offers truly deep insights into the human experience or the technical and/or aesthetic skills that are refined in such a way that the film becomes memorable through cinematography or choice of musical score.

This is not to say that Aiki does not have its moments: select scenes, like when Taichi and Samako try to make love (or even the day after – see image heading the review), are raw and touching in their honesty. The fact that difficult topics are never avoided – there are no miracles and Taichi’s fate of never being able to walk again is absolute – is also to be lauded, loss of fate, suicide, the limited support for and prejudice towards handicapped people and even impotence as a result of spinal injury all being raised.

Overall verdict: Inspired by a real-life story, Aiki offers a heartfelt tale of an individual overcoming adversity through sport but lacks a more skilled hand that could have made its power last beyond the two hours of screening time. It’s a fitting film for the Olympics indeed.

Rating: 7/10

Bonus Bits:

  • The film, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, only offers some insight into the martial arts of aiki. There is not too much information – or clear information – on the web either, although wikipedia does have an article. I think one problem is the confusing terminology: even the film title uses the general term, rather than specifying the form of aiki that Taichi practices.
  • A few shots of the real “Taichi”, Ole Kingston Jensen, appear during the film credits.
  • Very little has been written on this film. I found one review at Variety – I agree on the point of tightening the script.
  • A Region 2 DVD with English subtitles is available on cdjapan.co.jp as well as on yesasia.com. Not cheap however.

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