How Rocky and Raging Bull inspired Japanese film about a slacker

Filmmaker Masaharu Take explains how he drew inspiration from two Hollywood boxing films, and his own career struggles, for 100 Yen Love, the story of a woman who decides to make something of herself via boxing

PUBLISHED : Monday, 04 January, 2016, 6:01am
UPDATED : Monday, 04 January, 2016, 6:00am

In Japanese director Masaharu Take’s latest indie film, 100 Yen Love, Sakura Ando plays Ichiko, a reclusive slacker who finally moves out of her parents’ home at age 32 after a fight with her recently divorced sister.

While the pitch-black comedy of the story’s first half sees her take up a mundane job at a discount convenience store, meet an equally introverted love interest (played by Hirofumi Arai) and encounter a traumatic incident, its second half improbably morphs into a rousing sports drama in which the character rediscovers her purpose as an amateur boxer.

In a way, the critical reception for 100 Yen Love has been as uplifting as the story onscreen. Shin Adachi’s script for the film won a scriptwriting prize at the 2012 Shunan Film Festival, and the film has subsequently won a slew of domestic awards since it premiered at the Tokyo International Film Festival in October 2014, where it snatched the best picture prize worth 1 million yen (HK$64,260).

Having been picked for screening at film festivals in Udine, Shanghai, Edinburgh, Vancouver and Bucheon, among others, Take’s film was also chosen as Japan’s official entry for the best foreign language film category at the 2016 Academy Awards.

“This is my best film so far,” says Take at an interview with the Post during the recent Hong Kong Asian Film Festival. “I’ve been working in the film industry for some 26 years, and this still feels like a new starting point for my career.”

It hasn’t always been such a rosy picture: Ichiko’s depressed state of mind in the film’s outset stems from her creators’ own, the director confirms. “About five years ago, the economy was bad in Japan and film companies were closing down. I had no projects to work on; there were several that fell through for budgetary or other reasons,” says Take.

I’ve been working in the film industry for some 26 years, and this still feels like a new starting point for my career
Masaharu Take

A partnership was formed again after Adachi – who was also the scriptwriter for Take’s debut short film – told him he was out of work, too. They met up in a coffee shop to explore potential opportunities, and met for a script discussion session every week afterwards.

“When we were in the scripting stage, we were feeling exactly like Ichiko did in the film,” says Take. “The character reflected our mood at the time, although her story also gave us courage. The more we felt that we were beaten down, the more eager we were to reinvent ourselves.”

To put the success of Take and Adachi’s boxing film into context, it may be noted that the pair’s other recent collaboration, the comedy Mongolian Baseball, wrapped in 2013 but has been rarely shown anywhere. That film was made when 1 00 Yen Love was temporarily put on hold after the 2011 Tohoku earthquake.

“We’d put a lot of effort into 100 Yen Love,” says the 48-year-old filmmaker, whose other notable features include Cafe Seoul (2009), Eden (2012) and In the Hero (2014).

“It took four years of preparation – five years if we count Adachi’s writing – before the project went into production. We had no idea if it would ever end up on the cinema screens, so it’s good enough that people are getting a chance to see it now.”

The director certainly has Ando to thank for a towering performance that transcends the alternately miserable and life-affirming narrative here.

Although Take has known his lead actress since his feature directorial debut Boy Meets Pusan (2006), which starred Tasuku Emoto, Ando’s husband since 2012, it was her eye-catching supporting roles in films such as Love Exposure (2008) and The Samurai That Night (2012) that left the strongest impression.

“Her characters in those films were not of a kind that any actress could play,” says Take. “Ando came to interview at our film’s open audition. As soon as she walked into the room, I felt like it’s Ichiko coming in. She’s perfect for the part.”

Already one of Japan’s most idiosyncratic young actresses working today, Ando turned in what’s considered to be her best performance yet in the physically imposing role.

She had boxing experience from learning as a hobby in her teens, but her dedication to the role was as vital to her success: she trained for three months to gain muscle mass and she shot her character’s climactic battle inside the ring without a stunt double.

According to Take, the script initially ended with Ichiko walking into the ring, but once he saw Ando train, he realised she could physically shoot the scenes too.

“I thought, ‘since people are paying to see this film, why don’t we show them something more substantial?’ It’s only then that I decided to add the boxing scenes.”

Interestingly, though not altogether surprisingly, Take admits that his film was most heavily influenced by Rocky (1976) and Raging Bull (1980), two boxing classics he watched keenly as a kid.

“The story idea actually stemmed from Rocky,” he says. “In that film, Rocky has a girlfriend, Adrian, who works in a pet shop and feeds her turtles at home. Adachi and I thought: What would it be like if Adrian were the boxer? Our script began from there.

“We were also hoping to make our film play like Raging Bull. So you could say 100 Yen Love is linked to those two films. All of them are about characters who take up the challenge to chase their own dreams.”

If Take’s production struggles in 100 Yen Love’s early days mirror its lead character’s plight, the film’s failure to make the shortlist of nine in the Academy Awards’ foreign language category is at least ironically sticking to the narrative.

“A common theme that I’ve found in 100 Yen Love, Raging Bull and Rocky is that none of them offers a success story,” Take observes, referring to the respect characters earn without necessarily enjoying actual triumph. “In the end, none of the lead characters win.”

And then life goes on: As we speak, Take has been working with Adachi to develop two new film projects. So will 100 Yen Love spawn a sequel – as the Rocky films did time and again?

“I’m afraid that Ando might be reluctant to play a boxer again,” says the director. “But I do like to keep my options open. Maybe I’ll make a film about the same character – but not about boxing. It’ll take some imagination to pull off, but I’d be very interested to see this story continued in some way.”

100 Yen Loves opens on January 7