‘100 Yen Love’ (‘Hyakuen no koi’): Film Review

Courtesy of Fantasia Film Festival
A powerful portrait of punch-drunk love.

Japan is shooting for Oscar glory with this bruising drama about a depressed Tokyo woman fighting to win back her self-respect in the boxing ring.

A downtrodden young woman finds an outlet for her pent-up rage in the boxing ring in Japan’s official contender for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. But 100 Yen Love is not a standard you-go-girl female-centric boxing yarn in the tradition of Girlfight or Billion Dollar Baby, more like a classic character-driven indie drama which borrows the grammar of an inspirational sports movie midway through. A recurring musical motif of sloppy urban blues sets the emotional mood, which is mostly doleful but leavened by dry humour and glimmers of compassion.

Built around a powerful central performance by Sakura Ando, a rising young star who has previously worked with the likes of Takashi Miike and Sion Sono, 100 Yen Love rewards patient viewers with its graduated tonal shifts and subtle subversions of movie cliché. Already a much-traveled festival prize-winner, Japanese director Masaharu Take’s ninth feature is clearly tailored to arthouse tastes, but the Oscar connection may help it reel in the broader audience that Ando’s muscular star turn deserves.

The lumpen anti-heroine Ichiko (Ando) is a 32-year-old slacker who still lives at home in an overcrowded suburban apartment above the family business, where her long-suffering mother cooks classic Japanese bento take-out dishes. Crushed under deep layers of low self-esteem, Ichiko is a hopeless mess, her hair tangled and grungy, her clothes scruffy and slobbish. The return home of her recently divorced sister only amplifies tensions, finally driving Ichiko from the family nest. Moving into a tiny apartment, she takes a night-shift job in the cut-price convenience store which gives the film its title. Peopled with eccentric misfits, these deadpan comic scenes recall Kevin Smith’s Clerks.

Creepy co-worker Noma (Tadashi Sakata) takes an interest in Ichiko, but she is quietly fixated on aspiring amateur boxer Kano (Hirofumi Arai), with whom she begins a tentative and awkward romance. Both men are flawed and prove damaging in different ways: one is a callous heartbreaker, the other a rapist. For sensitive viewers, it is worth noting here that some critics found the rape scene jarring and disturbing, but it is mercifully brief and not sensationalized. Battered by physical and emotional abuse, Ichiko finally signs up for boxing training herself, and begins a fierce fightback against a lifetime of bullies. She’s as mad as hell and she’s not going to take it anymore.

With its emphasis on marginal characters struggling with their mundane lives, 100 Yen Love invokes the freewheeling, gritty texture of a vintage 1970s New Hollywood movie. Much like Ichiko herself, the plot is baggy and aimless at first, but becomes leaner and more focused in the latter half. As the editing tightens and the drama gathers momentum, Take’s apparently artless indie aesthetic starts to look like a well-plotted strategy. Even the ramshackle bluesy soundtrack sharpens into a punchy jingle-jangle rock score as Ichiko pumps herself up into Rocky mode, complete with fast-paced training montages.

The boxing scenes in 100 Yen Love have the hard, bruising smack of gym-trained authenticity. With its elegant blend of classical music, slow-motion camera glides and explosive close-up impact shots, the climactic ring showdown contains unavoidable echoes of Scorsese’s Raging Bull. But Ando’s striking physical transformation from slouching stoner to ferocious fighting machine is the most impressive element of Take’s film, all the more so because her newly self-confident heroine never quite attains the feel-good Hollywood resolution she craves.

The ambivalent message of 100 Yen Love could be one of feminist empowerment, or a more depressing endorsement of brute force as self-help therapy. Without getting into spoilers, the touchingly tender conclusion suggests Ichiko’s new-found obsession with sporting success is an illusory quick fix, just the first step towards repairing her damaged soul. Punching strangers in the face will not heal all your emotional scars, but sometimes it’s a good start.

Production company: Spotted Productions

Cast: Sakura Ando, Hirofumi Arai, Tadashi Sakata, Yozaburo Ito, Miyoko Inagawa, Saori, Osamu Shigematsu, Toshie Negishi

Director: Masaharu Take

Screenwriter: Shin Adachi

Producers: Gen Sato, Yuji Hiratai, Yoshinori Kano

Cinematographer: Hiromitsu Nishimura

Editor: Chieko Suzaki

Music: Shogo Kaida

Sales company: Toei, Tokyo

No rating, 113 minutes