Alternative English Title: The Legend of Love and Sincerity
Year: 2012
Country: Japan
Language: Japanese
Director: Miike Takashi
Adaptation from:
Kajiwara Ikki’s manga「愛と誠」(Ai to Makoto, 1973-1976)
Screenplay: Takuma Takayuki
Cinematography: Kita Nobuyasu
Soundscore: Kobayashi Takeshi
Cast: Tsumabuki Satoshi, Takei Emi, Saito Takumi, Ono Ito, Andō Sakura, Ihara Tsuyoshi, Yo Kimiko
Runtime: 134 min
Film’s official website: aiandmakoto.jp (in Japanese)

Trailer:

Seen at the film’s UK premiere at the 56th London International Film Festival.
Update: The film will have a UK home media release via Third Window Films on June 10, 2013.

Back in the 70s Kajiwara Ikki wrote, in manga form, the story of Ai to Makoto (literally Ai and Makoto, names which also mean ‘love’ and ‘sincerity’), two teenagers on very different rungs of the social ladder whose paths fatefully cross. Angelic Ai inhabits the strata of the upper class, coming from a wealthy family that has sheltered her from all the hardships that exist in life. Makoto, meanwhile, is at the very bottom of the hierarchy: abandoned by his father and mother, he survives as a fist-fighting delinquent in the lowest echelons of Tokyo. It’s probably not the most original of stories – a modern-day Romeo and Juliet tale – but Kajiwara’s manga, which originally ran from 1973 to 1976 in the Weekly Shōnen Magazine (Kodansha), was almost immediately adapted to a dorama (1974) and to three films (1974, 1975 and 1976). More than forty-years on cult-director Miike Takashi (「クローズZERO」/Kurōzu Zero/Crows Zero, 2007; 「十三人の刺客」/Jûsan-nin no shikaku/Thirteen Assassins, 2010) dug the story out again and made it into…. well, that’s the question.

ai to makoto manga

Ai to Makoto: The manga.

Miike’s 2012 Ai to Makoto is the sort of adaptation that makes you wonder what the original is like (or even its retellings). It boisterously comes in musical form, with a plethora of over-the-top moments of song and dance, served on a sparkling platter of bright and noisy colours in flamboyant parody. Unfortunately, the original manga is unavailable in English – there is no licensed translation nor any fan scanlation as far as I can determine – and with the original language versions still being beyond my grasp of Japanese, Kajiwara’s Ai to Makoto is inaccessible. But parody there is for sure: of social orders and class divisions, of particular cultural institutions and conventions (featuring a maid café and probably the most extended – and hilarious – panty shot that has graced screens), and possibly the manga itself – though I can’t be too sure about the last.

At the forefront of the mockery is love – the worshipping, idolising and obsessive high school love that is overly prevalent in shōjo mangas and also many doramas – for that is what Saotome Ai (Takei Emi) has quietly nurtured for Taiga Makoto (Tsumabuki Satoshi) since the moment he saved her in a skiing accident when they were children (a sequence that is wonderfully rendered in animated form in the film’s opening). Several years on, their paths cross again, Ai instantly recognising Makoto from the nasty scar on his forehead (think Harry Potter scar times ten) that he took away from the skiing incident. To the girl’s horror Makoto has gone down the wrong path in life and is beating up a round of 20, 30 guys single-handledly. With her love for the hero that piggy-backed her through deep snow (possibly a nod to a must-trope in Asian TV dramas featuring a romantic storyline) instantly reignited, Ai springs into action to save Makoto’s blackened soul. Initially that means clinging onto his leg and thwarting his escape when the police arrives on the scene – in other words, getting Makoto arrested for his misdeeds. However, Ai does not leave Makoto in prison, but, with the right connections and money freely at her disposal, she organises his release and transfer into her posh school.

If-looks-could-kill Makoto.

If-looks-could-kill Makoto.

That Makoto is anything other than pissed off about this set of events is not really surprising, nor that he refuses to become a charity make-over project for the rich. Thus more fists soon fly and blood flows, followed by some choice words (“f*ck me sideways” he says in a particularly quotable scene later in the film), with Makoto quitting the school nearly immediately. Ai’s determination, of course, is unshaken: if Makoto cannot be saved in the school of the elites, she will, now that she has finally found him again,  follow him in anywhere, even Tokyo’s most ramshackle institution teeming with social misfits. However, Ai isn’t the only one in the inescapable grasp of love – Iwashimizu (Saito Takumi from 「ボーイズ ラブ」/Bōizu Rabu/Boys Love, Japan, 2006, and 「逆転裁判」 /Gyakuten Saiban/Ace Attorney, Japan, 2012) equally worships the ground that Ai herself walks on, happily serenading her in front of all their classmates and then tagging along to Makoto’s new school of losers. There, more love entanglement follows: gothic, gum-chewing Gamuko (Andō Sakura), who runs the show at the school of misfits, finds herself strangely entranced by Makoto after he flings her – because it’s not just the rich he doesn’t give a damn about, but anyone – over a balcony. There is also Takahara Yuki (Ono Ito), who is less of a grey mouse than her quiet and studious façade suggests and who also has her own fierce protector in the much older Zao Gonta (Ihara Tsuyoshi). Ai to Makoto is, despite its title, about every single one of these characters, plus Makoto’s long absent mother (Yok Kimiko) and Ai’s lovey-dovey parents, the titular couple simply forms the connecting link between them all.

Miike goes for extremes in his adaptation: in style, characterisation and plot events. It’s a mixed media approach that he offers with Ai to Makoto, which bounces in as a live-action film with extended musical numbers (all characters listed above get ‘their’ song moment) and dancing (and dance-fighting), as well as animation. There’s a plethora of violence for sure, but it’s excessive to the point that it becomes comic – e.g. preppy-boy Iwashimizu being repeatedly whacked over the head by his new punk-girl classmates. Characterwise, it’s no use pretending that Ai is anything but a too innocent, too overbearing girl. She is a shōjo heroine to the core, confessing her love in an all too cheesy song. It is precisely because the scene – and many others – are so over the top that this film works, so long as you suspend your disbelief the moment the reel starts rolling:

Although Makoto demands most of the attention, Ai to Makoto is essentially an ensemble piece. Its cast is composed of a real mix of actors, both in terms of age and film experience. Tsumabuki Satoshi delivers, as always, a spot-on performance from beginning to end and convincingly manages to play a teenager at 31 (!), including next to Takei Emi’s Ai, who is 13 years his junior in real life. Takei’s acting isn’t quite as accomplished yet (she has had roles in a number of doramas since 2009) but 2012 was certainly a big year for her. Besides Ai to Makoto, Takei also starred in two further films: the blockbuster「るろうに剣心」(Rurouni Kenshin/Rurouni Kenshin, Japan, 2012) as well as the more recently released「今日、恋をはじめます」 (Kyo, Koi wo Hajimemasu/Love for Beginners, Japan, 2012). Japanese cinephiles will recognise some other faces – Takumi Saito, Sakura Ando, Kimiko Yo – but also encounter new(er) once like Ito Ono, who all contribute their bit to the spectacle with their eccentric characters (I particularly have a soft spot for Takumi’s ludicrously goody-two-shoes Iwashimizu).

Visually Ai to Makoto is an equally extravagant affair. Its sets – see the opening song – are often lush and in unnaturally bright colours, reinforcing the kaleidoscopic glimpse we get into the life of its characters, but also dark and moody at other times. In other words: it’s cinematographically atmospheric and at times rather beautiful. Unexpectedly, simple, animated scenes frame the story, something that is not only appropriate for a manga-to-film adaptation, but part of Miike’s typical genre-bending tactics.

Ai to Makoto isn’t perfect – it could probably be a little shorter – but it’s, oh, such fun that we don’t really want it to end. As Tony Rayns wrote in the BFI London Film Festival catalogue entry, it’s “the kind of movie that hits you, and it feels like a kiss” (quote) – the kind, I shall add, that leaves you reeling when you walk out of the cinema.

Rating: 9/10

Overall Verdict: Be sure to suspend your disbelief the moment you start watching, for it’s one of those ‘way out there’ films that is coming your way. Adapted from a 1970s manga, made into a musical that features everything from live-action to animation, Miike has put his idiosyncratically whacky-magical touch onto Ai to Makoto. You can either love it or hate it – and it’s definitely the former for me.

Bonus Bits

Image Gallery: