Tag Archives: musical

LFF 2012 #4: For Love’s Sake (Ai To Makoto, Japan 2012)

Tsumabuki Satoshi as Makoto Taiga, posed with the girls from the ‘trade school’.

Is Takashi Miike the hardest-working man in showbizz? He certainly completes a mind-boggling number of films each year. Very few of them get a cinema screening in the UK, so I was delighted to get the chance to see this in NFT 1, albeit on a French print with burned-in French subs and an extra English subtitle above.

For Love’s Sake (aka The Legend of Love & Sincerity) is a live action adaptation of a manga, although it begins and ends with short anime sequences. (It’s a Kadokawa film from a Kodansha manga – i.e. the Kadokawa parent – but produced for the Toei Studio) That’s the simple part of its definition – placing it generically is more difficult. The central character is Makoto, at 18 a rebellious and violent young man, full of aggression. We meet him on the streets of Tokyo, taking on a whole gang of wild youths single-handed. Surprised by the appearance of Ai, a wealthy and very poised young woman, Makoto allows himself to be taken by the riot police. Ai then determines to use her father’s money and influence to spring Makoto from prison and get him admitted to her exclusive prep school. We know from the anime prologue that Makoto saved Ai’s life eleven years previously when he swore her to secrecy because he didn’t want it known that he’d helped a rich girl. She now recognises him (from the scar on his forehead), but he wants nothing to do with her. The other point to make here is that the time period is supposedly 1972. Since a) most of what follows takes place on highly stylised sets and b) Japanese school uniforms and the outfits of street gangs are more or less timeless, I forget about the time period for the rest of the film.

Takei Emi as Saotome Ai

Perhaps the best way to describe the genre repertoires is Grease-style high-school musical meets Buffy the Vampire-Slayer (but without any supernatural stuff) and a yakuza comedy. Various other Japanese generic characters wander in at various points and the whole is extremely enjoyable. The sets really are wonderful and reminded me a little of Suzuki Seijun films from the 1960s such as Gate of Flesh. Several sequences require characters to burst into songs. I know very little about Japanese pop music but they were easy to listen to and the performers were excellent. The major point about Miike is usually the violence and there is plenty of it here, mostly enormous fistfights and kickings. In this film the female gangs are just as vicious as the male and Makoto fights both with equal gusto. I’m not sure if this suggests sexual equality but once you become inured to the violence through constant repetition, it ceases to be violence at all really – more like a form of aggressive dance choreography. (I wonder if Miike has ever seen the British ‘St Trinian’s girls in films – schoolgirls with hockey sticks instead of baseball bats?) The plot requires Makoto to get involved (against his will) with two other young women and Ai has her own unwanted suitor in the form of a geeky character who reminded me of a less quirky/comical Richard Aoyade (Moss in The IT Crowd on UK TV). In the end we discover the real reason for Makoto’s aggression.

Makoto is played by Tsumabuki Satoshi, who I later realised had played the lead in Villain (2010). At 31 he is considerably older than the teenage Takei Emi who plays Ai.Wikipedia reveals that the original manga by Kajiwara Ikki was published in 1973 and was followed quickly by an audio (radio?) version, a TV adaptation and three live action film versions, all produced in the 1970s, which explains the setting.

I can’t really think of a better recommendation than to suggest that the film is constantly entertaining throughout its 130 mins running time. I assume that it will become available on DVD, but if you get the chance, see it on the biggest screen possible in order to appreciate the sets and the ‘Scope compositions from Miike’s current cinematographer Kita Nobuyasu.

Here’s a trailer with English subs:

Black History Month: Babymother (UK 1998)

Wil Johnson as Byron and Anjela Lauren Smith as Anita

Wil Johnson as Byron and Anjela Lauren Smith as Anita

Babymother is one of the few Black British films to receive a UK release of any kind since the 1980s, but even so, it is likely to be better known abroad where it was shown in festivals. In the UK it received only a very limited distribution and has been seen mainly on Channel 4 television. The first TV airings showed cropped images from what is a widescreen (CinemaScope) film musical (which bizarrely links it to the early Cliff Richard ‘Scope musicals such as The Young Ones (1961). The film represents a conscious attempt to avoid the typical ‘burden of representation’ that sits heavily on Black British films – it isn’t concerned with the ‘problems of life in the inner city associated with racism and deprivation’. Instead it celebrates one aspect of Jamaican life in London – ‘dancehall’, with its distinctive musical style and dramatic costumes.

A Jamaican film, Dancehall Queen (made on digital video by the legendary Don Letts) was released in the UK in 1997 and did good business in South London. This may have influenced Henriques. Some critics have also suggested that Babymother may owe something to the look and feel of Bollywood. Henriques himself speaks about the long tradition of specifically Jamaican culture including the links to the Saturday night ‘blues’ party which often carried over into Sunday church.

The film is set in Harlesden, the western part of the London Borough of Brent, arguably an area of London that has been defined through successive generations of new communities – Irish, African Caribbean and Asian. The plot sees a young single mother (the ‘babymother’) – Anita, a beautiful talented singer who has not found the confidence to assert herself in the dancehall culture, especially when she has felt herself in the shadow of the ‘babyfather’, Byron, played by Wil Johnson (now a leading UK TV actor). But when Byron steals one of her lyrics, she finally decides to take him on in the competitive arena of the dancehall. The film plays this narrative from the musical (which sees characters bursting into song as in the classical musical as well as in the dancehall) against a more familiar family melodrama about Anita’s mother and older sister. This has an interesting twist. A full synopsis and commentary is available on Screenonline. Though the Screenonline account is accurate, I don’t think it quite picks up the unique qualities of the film. Certainly this is a film to divide audiences. If you are expecting the usual ‘social realist’ drama about inner-city London, you’ll be disappointed. But if you like the idea of a vibrant musical with some reality thrown in, I think it works. If you don’t know about dancehall, it is extremely colourful with the performers wearing outlandish costumes (a bit like the carnival costumes seen at Notting Hill or other Caribbean carnival events). It is a completely Black musical, with no white characters as such. Screenonline suggests that this is a weakness, but it seems fine to me. A TV series called Babyfather appeared in 2001. There was no direct connection between the film and the series which both focus on the concept of single parents, but Wil Johnson also appeared in the first episode of the TV series.

Anita and the children

Anita and the children

Writer-director Julian Henriques was born in Yorkshire. He studied psychology at Bristol University and worked as a lecturer, policy researcher, and journalist before becoming a television researcher. In the 1970s, he started the journal Ideology and Consciousness (later I and C) with a group of young psychologists and social theorists. Their aim was to bring together critical work in psychology with work on the subject and subjectivity coming out of European social theory (structuralism, post-structuralism and psychoanalysis), as well as continental feminism. He has made documentaries for LWT, the BBC and with his own production company for Channel Four. We the Ragamuffin (1992) was his first narrative short film, Babymother his first feature film. Henriques taught film and television at the University of the West Indies, Mona, Jamaica, and currently works at Goldsmiths College, University of London. Here is his staff page at Goldsmiths.

Producer Parminder Vir began her career in 1978 as an Arts Administrator with the Minority Arts Advisory Service, moving to the Commonwealth Institute and eventually becoming Head of the Race Equality Unit in the Arts and Recreation Department of the GLC. In 1986, she moved into film-making and began working as a researcher for the BBC. She set up her own production company in 1994 and produced several award-winning programmes. In 1996 she had joined Carlton Television as a Consultant to the Director of Programmes, implementing a strategy for achieving cultural diversity on and behind the screen. Since 1998 she has become a leading figure in the film and television industries, serving as a UK Film Council Board Member from 1999-2005 and setting up Ingenious World Cinema to aid production of films from “emerging markets, including India, China, South Africa, Brazil, Argentina and the Diaspora” as part of the larger Ingenious Media. (She is also married to Julian Henriques.) 

Amazon shows that there are still some copies of the Film Four DVD available.

(Notes updated from a screening in 2002)