Boxing films share a similar arc, typically climaxing in a big bout that decides everything — at least everything relevant to the hero’s fate. This does not always means triumph, as fans of the “Rocky” series know, but even in defeat the hero usually inspires respect and sympathy, at the very least for surviving a contest of a brutality that non-boxers can only imagine.
The challenge for a director is to film that big bout — and the ones leading up to it — not just as a record of a sporting contest, but as part of a story. Some rise to the challenge with blood-splattered realism, such as Martin Scorsese with his 1980 classic “Raging Bull,” while others evade it with cartoony excess, such as Fumihiko Sori with the 2011 film “Ashita no Joe (Tomorrow’s Joe).”
Masaharu Take takes the former approach in “Hyakuen no Koi (100 Yen Love),” a film that won the Best Picture Award in the Japanese Cinema Splash section at the 2014 Tokyo International Film Festival. But unlike the many boxing films that are testosterone-driven dramas — including Scorsese’s — Take centers his on a woman and begins it as a black comedy.
|Rating||out of 5|
|Run Time||113 minutes|
Based on an award-winning script by Shin Adachi, “100 Yen Love” is thus a genre outlier, but its training and boxing scenes are hard-hitting standouts — “Rocky,” move over.
Take, who also partnered with Adachi on the low-budget 2013 comedy “Mongol Yakyu Seishunki (Mongolian Baseball),” deserves credit, but it is Sakura Ando’s all-out performance as the unlikely heroine Ichiko that lifts the film above its shambling story line and pawky gags to moments of greatness.
Ichiko is a 32-year-old slacker who is jobless, boyfriendless and aimless. Home is no haven, with her testy sister (one-name actress Saori) scolding Ichiko for her lazy ways at each and every opportunity. Her mom and dad are more tolerant, but Ichiko soon gets fed up, moves out and starts working at a local ¥100 shop as a checkout clerk.
The job, however, is hardly a step up. Her middle-age co-worker (Shohei Uno) is a smarmy lech, while her manager (Yuki Okita) is a nagging stickler for the rules. A feisty homeless woman (Toshie Negishi) who raids the store for throwaway food provides some excitement, but Ichiko is more attracted to a regular customer — a moody, silent boxer (Hirofumi Arai) who trains at a neighborhood gym and is nicknamed “Banana Man” for his frequent purchases of said fruit.
The story continues as a slice-of-life comedy when Ichiko and the boxer, Yuji, start dating and living together, though he barely acknowledges her existence at first. Then it takes a turn I won’t elaborate on — I’ll only say that Yuji abruptly exits the relationship and boxing, which ignites something in Ichiko and she starts training at the gym herself.
The film doesn’t explain this change in hackneyed “I’m going to take control of my life” terms. Instead, Ichiko’s motives remain somewhat mysterious, but as she transforms from clumsy beginner to laser-focused boxer, we see punching bags and sparring partners take the brunt of a frustration and rage that seem to have been building in her for a lifetime.
Nothing unusual about that, but far from ordinary is Ando’s total dedication to the role, striking blows and even jumping rope with a fury and skill that is no mere act. Off-screen, Ando reportedly started boxing while still in junior high and her knowledge of the sport shines through, including her close acquaintance with its pain.
That becomes most apparent when she is in the ring, facing off against an actual opponent. The true test of a boxing film is its boxing scenes, and the ones in “100 Yen Love” convey — better than almost any other I’ve seen — the sport’s sheer ferocity, with blows that would knock the ordinary person flat raining down mercilessly. Yes, two women are in the ring, not Robert De Niro or Sylvester Stallone, but that takes nothing away from the intensity, especially given that one is fighting to defeat her past, and her own label as a “100 yen girl.”
But Ando, in the best performance of her so-far brilliant career, comes out as the biggest winner. If she doesn’t walk away with a cartload of acting prizes for this role, you know the fix is in.
Fun fact: Shin Adachi’s script for “Hyakuen no Koi (100 Yen Love)” won the 2012 Shunan Film Festival’s inaugural Yusaku Matsuda prize for scriptwriting, named after actor Matsuda, a native of Yamaguchi Prefecture. As a tribute to him, part of the film was shot in Yamaguchi.