How do you begin to describe Ai to Matoko, the new film from Miike Takashi, the prolific, ever-eclectic Japanese director behind such diverse works as Ichi The Killer, Visitor Q and 13 Assassins? Barely a month seems to go by without news of yet another Miike film surfacing or going into production, but what is most staggering of all is how technically complex and accomplished each one is, even projects as flawed as Harakiri: Death of a Samurai 3D or Ninja Kids. Not only is Miike able to deliver something in 6 months that almost any other director worth their salt would be forgiven for spending 2 years of their life poring over, but he does it time and time again. And his latest proves not only to be as good as the films it follows so closely behind, but that it is the best thing Miike has produced at least since 2010's 13 Assassins.
Known internationally as For Love's Sake, Ai to Makoto is a full-blown, go-for-broke, song-and-dance fuelled musical that instantly draws comparisons to Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins' West Side Story. It is the first time that Miike has attempted anything in this genre, but he does so with incredible confidence and gusto, delivering perhaps a dozen musical numbers across the film's 134 minutes, and they prove to be the strongest element of the film. The songs are so good in fact, and delivered in a delightfully knowing tongue-in-cheek fashion, that whenever the cast stops singing the film threatens to come undone. Looking back over Miike's vast catalogue of work, Ai to Matoko bears the strongest resemblance to his high school gang brawl flick Crows: Zero. While I wasn't particularly enamoured with that film (to the extent that I passed on its sequel entirely) it is quickly marking itself out as a pivotal work in the director's evolution, heavily informing at least two of his subsequent films - namely the action-packed second half of 13 Assassins and now this.
Set in and around two very different high schools, Ai to Matoko is a classic tale of star-crossed lovers, doomed by their wildly different upbringings, but haunted by a first meeting back when they were very young.
Sataome Ai is the top student of an incredibly elitist private boarding school, and the daughter of a wealthy socialite and head of the school's PTA. When Ai accidentally crosses paths with young street punk Taiga Makoto, she falls head-over-heels despite her better judgement, and vows to rescue the boy from his dead end life of brawling and generally antisocial behaviour. Ai convinces her father to enrol Makoto in the academy, where he instantly causes trouble, not least by antagonising four-eyed bookworm Iwashimizu, who considers himself destined to be with Ai. Before long, Makoto has cruelly manipulated Ai into breaking school rules and gotten her and himself kicked out and sent to an apocalyptically awful Trade School. Iwashimizu does the dutiful thing and follows suit, but their arrival spawns a whole new set of problems for everyone concerned.
From start to finish, Ai to Makoto looks incredible. Miike takes his lurid colour palette from Yatterman and applies it here, first to the chocolate box sickening perfection of Ai's picture postcard world, and subsequently to the nihilistic wasteland which Makoto inhabits. It's as if the set of a Broadway musical had been bulldozed by anarchists, and then redecorated by pepped-up kindergarten teachers. But it proves the perfect setting for Miike's wild, larger-than-life characters, who live only for love, no matter how cruel it becomes. Takei Emi could not be more innocent, pure and adorable as the stubbornly devoted Ai, who will literally take herself to Hell and back if only Makoto will acknowledge her existence. Meanwhile, Tsumabuki Satoshi's teen hoodlum recoils at the very notion of romance, instead compensating for the neglect he suffered in his youth by lashing out at anyone who comes close to him, be they friend or foe.
Takumi Saito does a particularly impressive job of ensuring that bespectacled nerd Iwashimizu is something more than just a wimpy bookworm. The character enjoys a surprisingly strong character arc through the film and also gets a couple of strong musical numbers, particularly his hilarious initial declaration of his love for Ai. Elsewhere, Ono Ito plays the quiet trade school girl, Yuki, whom Makoto does reveal a glimmer of affection for, but who is already the property of prematurely ageing brawler Gonta (Ihara Tsuyoshi) and there's a fabulous scene-stealing turn from Ando Sakura as Gumko, the ferocious, monosyllabic leader of the school's feared girl gang.
While the film loses its momentum for a time during the second half, where perhaps half an hour seems to go by without a song, these minor faults pale in comparison to the film's innumerable triumphs. The musical numbers are incredibly catchy, and despite not knowing a single word of Japanese, I frequently caught myself humming or whistling their toe-tapping tunes days after watching the film. The overall design is a dazzling assault on the senses and the performances ensure that even characters who are supposed to be villains end up being incredibly likeable - and often get the best songs! I can say with some certainty that you won't see a more wild, inventive or shamelessly enjoyable Japanese film this year. Warts and all, I absolutely loved it.