EXPECTATIONS: A typical boxing movie with a knockout performance by Sakura Ando.
REVIEW: Another day, another 100 yen. Every time I read about a film and it has Sakura Ando starring in it, I know I have to see it. Ever since I saw her as the shocking villain in Sion Sono’s Love Exposure, I was hooked by how talented she is. Then I saw her in other roles like the understated Petal Dance, the critically acclaimed TV series (which became a 4 1/2 hour film) Penance or the incredibly joyful For Love’s Sake and I noticed how versatile she can be. Yet in 100 Yen Love, I believe she gives her best performance in her entire career. But does the film stand up alongside its female lead? Thankfully, the film almost matches up in stature to Ando’s performance due to its hyper-realistic world, boxing genre deconstructions, quirky yet genuine characters and a diligence to not travel into well-worn cliches.
Ichiko (Sakura Ando) is a 32 year old shut-in who lives with her parents (Yozaburo Ito and Miyoko Inagawa) and (barely) helps out with her mother’s bento (lunchbox) shop when she’s not constantly playing video games, reading manga (comic books) and and eating junk food. After going through a big argument too many with her recently divorced sister moving back in (Saori), Ichiko moves into a flat (with financial help from her mother) and applies to work at a 100 yen store (equivalent to a 99c store). Going through work training with various quirky co-workers, she strolls pass a boxing gym and sees Yuji (Hirofumi Arai), a boxer known as “Banana Man” who regularly visits the store she works in, buying bananas. The two develop a relationship but sooner or later, it goes rocky and worse, her life itself comes to a halting standstill after she goes through many traumatic hardships. Her only outlet left that could make her feel more substantial in her life is boxing.
Reading the synopsis back to myself, I realized that the story sounds just as predictable as the 2015 American boxing film, Southpaw. But funnily enough, it constantly never plays out that way. The film deconstructs most of the boxing film cliches to wonderful effect and it keeps the film unpredictable at times. For example, the film feels like Rocky due to its romance, but the relationship never plays out as romantic or even platonic. It plays out as non-existent to distant to almost respectful, almost like Ichiko’s character development itself. Another example is how Ichiko is drawn into the world of boxing. She’s not drawn into it because she likes the sporting concept, nor is it an outlet for her simmering anger of her position in life, nor is it a revenge story against the opponent or due to a shocking scene in the middle of the film. She’s drawn into it due to something else entirely and for me to see it culminate in the climax, it’s a heartwarming moment that got to me.
Even the score for the most part, is not the usual triumphant or rousing music the audience usually hears, but a melancholic blues-like riff that comes off as funny and pathetic in equal measure. The music gets more energetic as it comes into the third act and it adds to the emotional payoff that the audience waits for, but the music that I remember the most is the music in the 100 yen store. The song is a repetitive, catchy and intentionally annoying riff that would drive anyone crazy. Come to think of it, every character that works in the store does come off a bit crazy, so it makes total narrative sense. Speaking about the store, the cinematography and lighting of the store is bright and lively, yet everywhere else is a dull grey wash, conveying the world as hyper-realistic, making it seem like the store is what the real world is meant to be, but it most definitely isn’t.
But the film would not have been half as good as it is without Sakura Ando’s performance. Her portrayal of her character’s development from slacker to boxer is magnificent to behold, even without a lot of dialogue. She plays a slacker with no effort (especially since she played one in the TV series, Penance), looking the part with butt-scratching included, but when she reaches the stage of boxing, she genuinely looks like she knows what she’s doing, with the filmmakers capturing every punch, every stance, every sign of footwork and every glance she gives. According to interviews, she used to train in boxing back in junior high school, and it clearly shows. Her performance is so subtle that it’s very hard to know what exactly sets her off to take boxing, but it is clearly the intent of the filmmakers since it makes it compellingly ambiguous, yet still gets us to really care for Ichiko. Thanks to her performance and the filmmakers, the film comes off as more than a boxing film and becomes an immersive character study and a slice-of-life tale. The supporting cast are all good in their roles, like Hirofumi Arai as Yuji who has a similar character arc to Ichiko and the incredibly hateful Shohei Uno as Numa and the strange ex-employee Toshie Negishi as Ikeuchi, who keeps stealing overdue food from the 100 yen store.
The boxing scenes are gritty and no-holds-barred, much like the journey of Ichiko and the climax is so rousing that I haven’t felt like cheering in a Japanese film since Linda Linda Linda. Come to think of it, the character of Ichiko could easily fit in a Nobuhiro Yamashita film, similar to the former and Tamako in Moratorium. But some things need to be addressed. There is an event in the middle of the film that can throw audiences off at how seemingly out of place it is. But credit to the filmmakers for making it more subtle than it should be and for not making it an obvious route for Ichiko’s commencement of her journey as it is another one of her hardships she goes through, but audiences should prepare for that scene, since it kinda shocked me.
100 Yen Love is worth a lot more than its supposedly cliche-driven story indicates and Sakura Ando provides her best performance in her career in a film that shouldn’t be just known as a boxing film just like how Ichiko shouldn’t be just known as a 100 yen girl.
Sakura Ando’s incredibly physical and sincere performance
Weird yet realistic supporting characters are well-portrayed
Deconstructs the boxing film genre and goes on its own path
The entire climax will get you fist-pumping
The storytelling is surprisingly coherent, even with its changes in tone
Slow pacing may throw people off
There are some disturbing moments that may seem out of place for some
SCORE: 8/10 (A character study revolving around a personal journey through adversity and purpose that evolves into a boxing film.)
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Cast: Sakura Ando, Hirofumi Arai, Miyoko Inagawa, Saori, Shohei Uno, Tadashi Sakata, Yuki Okita, Kaito Yoshimura, Shinichiro Matsuura, Yozaburo Ito, Osamu Shigematsu, Toshie Negishi.
Director: Masaharu Take
Screenwriters: Shin Adachi