Like a taxidermist, Takashi Miike removes the sinew and heart of the star-crossed amour between a good rich girl and a poor bad boy, only to stuff it with glossily macabre artifice, in “For Love’s Sake.” This adaptation of a 1973 manga that spawned the Nipponese genre of jun-ai (pure love) arguably reps the protean helmer’s first full-blown romance; not surprisingly, it ends up a scornful lampoon of pulpy sentimentality as Miike upstages the genre’s conventions with riotous musical numbers and schlocky violence. Genre and arthouse circuits will be besotted with the razzmatazz.
As children, Ai Saotome and Makoto Taiga have a fateful encounter on the ski slope of Tateshinakogen in Nagano prefecture. Eleven years later, Makoto (Satoshi Tsumabuki) is seen embroiled in a street fight in Tokyo’s busy Shinjuku district. Ai (Emi Takei) recognizes him by the scar on his forehead and uses her rich parents’ powerful connections to get him into her elitist high school in the hopes of reforming him.
To pay for Makoto’s expenses, she moonlights at a hostess bar, but his troublemaking soon gets him expelled and shuffled to Hanazone High, a crime-infested hellhole ruled by hard-as-nails bullies Gumko (Sakura Ando), Gonto (Tsuyoshi Ihara) and Yuki (Ito Ono). Ai enrolls herself into the same school to be near him, and her geeky, bespectacled devotee, Hiroshi Iwashimizu (Takumi Saitoh), follows suit.
The original manga “Ai to Makoto” (love and sincerity) by Ikki Kajiwara and Takumi Nagayasu has gone through several screen and TV incarnations, assuming cult status equivalent to that of “Love Story.” Miike’s interpretation stands apart from his other reworkings of 1970s children’s entertainment, such as “Zebraman,” “Yatterman” and “Ninja Kids,” replacing the affectionate and playful mood in those pics with blase cynicism here.
There are dark, grotesque overtones to the ornate mise-en-scene (such as the chandeliers dangling in both Ai’s opulent mansion and Makoto’s dingy shack) and the hysterical song-and-dance numbers, which outdo the murderous shenanigans in Miike’s other musical, “The Happiness of the Katakuris.” Ai’s attempts to throw herself at Makoto’s feet and the subsequent punishment she inevitably brings upon herself are choreographed as gleeful slapstick. Hiroshi’s love declaration, while being a hilarious caricature of the flamboyant Hideki Saijo (who played Makoto in the 1974 film version), also make him as much a grating figure of ridicule as Ai.
It is only after the stage moves to Hanazone High that Miike feels at home in his own genre turf, so it’s not a coincidence that the personas of Gonto and Gumko, as well as the student gang dynamics and the grungy classroom sets recall the “Crows Zero” pics. But while the violence there had a liberating vigor, here it takes the form of thuggish bashings, inflicted with a spiteful sadism. Since Miike cannot regard any of his material with a straight face, everything becomes overwrought parody, from female torture scenes that reference Seijun Suzuki’s “Gate of Flesh” to Gumko’s baffling Sadako-like body spasms.
Radiantly beautiful 18-year-old newcomer Takei goes along with Miike’s tongue-in-cheek representation of her goody-two-shoes image and taps into the sadomasochistic undertones of the sacrifices she makes for Makoto; she outstanding when performing a maid-costume floor show in which coyness titillatingly invites defilement. Tsumabuki, unsure if he’s playing a hero or a villain, resembles neither and delivers a stiff, no-note performance.
Sound effects are cranked to the max, giving action scenes the retro feel of superhero TV shows while dance choreography seems Bollywood-inspired. Yuji Hayashida’s production design is a virtuoso cumulus of lavish, bizarrely color-coordinated interior design, quaint 1970s paraphernalia and abstract theatrical props. All tech credits are flawless.