There is no stopping Takashi Miike (Izo, Gozu, 46 Okunen No Koi, Zebraman 2, Sun Scarred, Nintama Rantaro, Ace Attorney, Visitor Q). Ai To Makoto (For Love's Sake) will probably be sold as his latest film in the West, but in the meantime the man already completed Aku No Kyoten, he's close to completing Wara No Tate and he's busy filming Mogura No Uta. Even after releasing 80+ films, Miike is still going strong and if Ai To Makoto proves anything, it's that Miike hasn't dried up just yet.
Ai To Makoto isn't exactly new territory for Miike. It's not his first ever remake (think Graveyard Of Honor, Ichimei or Yokai Daisenso), it's not even his first musical remake combo (that credit goes to Katakuri-ke no Kofuku). Still, the film does differ quite a bit from previous Miike releases, so it's not just a a rehash of films he made before. In the end, Ai To Makoto plays more like a mix of Katakuri-ke and Miike's Crows series (Crows Zero, Crows Zero 2) . A musical about delinquent school gangs, based on the story of the original version of Ai To Makoto (1974), but with Miike's signature ever present.
Katakuri-ke was pretty camp and even though Ai To Makoto isn't entirely straight-faced either, Miike puts a lot more effort into the actual songs and dance routines here. Sure enough there are a couple funny choreographies and a few cute song tricks in here, but for the larger part the musical elements function quite well as an actual musical. The contrast with the over-the-top characters and settings remains though, making for quite the atypical musical experience.
The gist of the story is a simple copy of the original Ai To Makoto. A short introduction shows us how Makoto saves Ai when she's sliding down a mountain. Years later the two reunite and while Ai is prone to clear her debt with Makoto, he isn't the least bit interested in Ai's good intentions. Instead he pushes her away, ending up in a school for students deemed lost for society. Makoto fares quite well, but things get pretty interesting when Ai decides to follow Makoto and enlists herself in the same school.
Miike's latest films may have lost some of their crazy edge, but they sure make up for that with strong and telling visuals. Ai To Makoto looks absolutely stunning from start to finish. Bold colors, superb editing and great use of filters (the opening sequence is an instant classic), beautiful animation and amazing camera work make Ai To Makoto into visual bliss. I would even go as far as to say this is Miike's most beautiful film to date.
As for the music, the songs are actually pretty catchy. I don't count musical among my favorite genres and the Japanese language might not be the easiest to sing along to for us Westerners, but at times I was actually looking forward to the next song. Of course the funny dance routines helped, but for a musical the actual music was quite bearable indeed (unless you strongly detest all types of J-Pop, then it's probably better to avoid this film altogether).
The cast of Ai To Makoto seemed pretty well aware of the type of movie they were in. Not too many familiar faces in here, but overall they did a pretty good job bringing this film to life. I hadn't seen Takei act before, Tsumabuki I remembered from Lee's Villain. While I wouldn't go as far as to say the duo carried the entire movie, they did lend enough body to their respective characters to at least make the drama and the romance work out.
For once though I have to agree with the most generally cited critique people have on Miike's films. Ai To Makoto drags a little. While the first hour is fun and fresh, the second one seems to have a little trouble trying to keep the momentum going. It felt as if the drama took the upper hand, when the musical bits were actually the highlight of the film. It would've been better if Miike had cut the drama just a little, or if he had inserted a couple of extra musical routines. Even tough the second half of the film is far from bad, it's just not as exciting as the first hour.
That said, there is still plenty to enjoy here. It seems that with each new film Miike raises the bar on production level. Ai To Makoto looks absolutely stunning, from start to finish. The music bits are actually quite fun, there are enough wacky bits to make it a vintage Miike film and the acting is pretty solid. Miike fans should definitely check it out as Ai To Makoto is yet another great addition to the man's ever-expanding oeuvre.