In Japan, ¥100 goes about as far as a dollar. That’s how much everything costs at the store where Ichiko works in “100 Yen Love,” a Japanese indie with the soul of a 1970s American film — a project that might’ve caught Hal Ashby’s eye, for example — and a cast of wise-cracking slackers who’d be right at home in a movie like “Clerks.” But what makes director Masaharu Take’s modest local drama so well suited to international exposure is the stunning character arc at the film’s center. One can only hope Western fests will give this ferociously well-acted winner a shot.
When we meet Ichiko (Sakura Ando), she’s a slouchy, disheveled mess: unkempt, unmotivated and barely able to hold herself up straight — the polar opposite of the energetic cult leader Ando played in Sion Sono’s “Love Exposure,” the film that launched her career. Skulking around at home in a baggy, oversized T-shirt, Ichiko picks an epic food fight with her younger sister — one of those dramatic last-straw confrontations that results in Ichiko storming out of the house, her hair matted with ketchup and all her worldly possessions stuffed into two big bags.
By the end of the film, Ichiko will have completely transformed herself from this slovenly young woman, who takes a job at a discount store for lack of anything better to do with her time, into a strong, self-confident amateur boxer. Few actresses could have played the two extremes so convincingly, but Ando has remarkable control of her own physicality, plus the gift of making it all look natural.
At the risk of overstatement, Ando is that rare performer worthy of comparison to Japan’s all-time greatest actor, Toshiro Mifune, who could share the screen with 20 other performers and still ensure that all eyes were on him. Even at rest, the two thesps manage to convey a sort of constant agitation and unpredictability: They vibrate with potential energy, to the extent that you never know when they will explode or what will happen when they do.
Looking back from the finish line, “100 Yen Love” is the story of how this character evolved from a sense of worthlessness to recognizing her own value and finding self-respect through boxing. But it’s a credit to Shin Adachi’s screenplay that no single event appears to trigger her decision to pull her life together.
Ichiko passes a boxing gym on the way to work, but the proverbial light bulb doesn’t go off immediately. She tries dating one of the guys she notices training there, a spindly and somewhat awkward fellow (Hirofumi Arai) whom her co-workers call “Banana Man,” since he buys armloads of the fruit at a time from their store, but his interest in boxing doesn’t seem to be the reason, either. Ichiko even suffers a tough-to-watch sexual assault — all the more troubling given the ubiquity of rape in Asian films these days — but to Take’s credit, the scene feels more honest than obligatory, and it isn’t handled as a pat explanation for her decision.
Rather, in its unique mix of seriousness and comedy, the film presents a series of disappointments in a young woman’s life that cumulatively convince her to take control of her own destiny. Of course, Ichiko wants to win, and the film’s soundtrack (which has consisted mostly of American-style blues music until this point) intensifies considerably to reflect her newfound focus, catching us somewhat by surprise quite late in the film, as we suddenly find ourselves wondering if this was some sort of oddly constructed sports movie all along.
But once Ichiko steps into the ring, not only do we fully appreciate how far she has come over the course of the film, but we finally recognize the kind of encouragement she had been missing, poignantly demonstrated in the combatants’ post-bout embrace. Deceiving us with its grubby lighting and meandering plot, this seemingly listless film succeeds in steering itself somewhere unexpected and ultimately quite substantial, which goes to explain how a movie called “100 Yen Love” succeeded in winning the ¥1,000,000 prize in the Tokyo Film Festival’s Japanese Splash sidebar: That’s as it should be for a film about recognizing treasure where no one else thought to look, hiding among the aisles of a bargain store.