Initiation Love (2015)

Initiation Love first published as a programme note for the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2018

“A rite of passage, a ritual to become an adult – that’s what first relationships are. You think you’ve found the one, and that you’re positive, but realise that nothing is absolute. And that realisation makes you grow up. You learn from the relationship. So it should be called ‘initiation love’.”

This is how, some way into Initiation Love (Inishiêshon rabu), office worker Miyako Ishimaru (Fumino Kimura) glosses the film’s title and lays out its themes. For Yukihiko Tsutsumi’s feature concerns the romantic coming of age of its protagonist Suzuki, wherein his own personal growth and his gradual erotic disillusionment form a steep learning curve. With eros here, as in Max Ophüls’ La Ronde (1950), proving both triangular and circular in its contours, this is also a film about the passage of time itself, viewed through the distorting rose-tinted glasses of Eighties nostalgia.

Mayuko Naruka (Atsuko Maeda) is herself a spectacle almost literally rose-tinted when, on July 10, 1987, Suzuki (Kanro Morita) first catches sight of her – for to his eyes she is surrounded by blossoming (CG) flowers that visualise for us his idealised picture of her. Obviously this is love at first sight, even if Suzuki, a “fat and plain” virgin, cannot quite believe that the beautiful dental assistant – who is obviously, as one bystander observes, “out of his league” – is as interested in him as he is in her. Yet miraculously Mayuko is looking precisely for someone “a bit square and awkward” like Suzuki, even if she subtly sets about encouraging Suzuki to change – and change is what our lovesick underdog does, getting a fashion makeover, swapping his glasses for contact lenses, applying for a driver’s licence, and even, at a romantic Christmas Eve dinner with his new girlfriend, committing to an exercise regime to lose weight. First love is, after all, a transformative rite of passage, and Suzuki’s life, as he puts it, “has flipped 180 degrees after meeting this woman – that’s right, like a cassette tape flips over from Side A to B.”

Suzuki’s tape analogy (delivered in voiceover) replicates the film’s formal structure: a bipartite division, marked expressly by section titles. By the time the longer ‘Side B’ has begun, the action has skipped to 19 June, and Suzuki has become a different person, fitter and more self-confident – so different, in fact, that he is now played not by Morita, but by the much slimmer actor Shota Matsuda. If ‘Side A’ was all about the heady delirium of early passion, ‘Side B’ concerns the distance that can, with time, come to divide a couple – a distance here literalised by Suzuki’s work transfer from Shizuoka City (where he has been living with Mayuko) to Tokyo. Now living apart from Mayuko during the week, and increasingly drawn to his colleague Miyako, Suzuki must decide whether he wants to move on or keep heading back – nostalgically – to a relationship that for him is losing its lustre.

Accordingly Initiation Love offers a two-timing narrative, in which both the beginning and end of a relationship are seen playing out over a year and a half, with one lover replaced by another, as we are left waiting till the final reel to see if romantic fantasy or cynical realism will ultimately win out. It also comes with a twist, boldly promised in opening text but sufficiently well concealed in the story itself that you might find yourself revisiting the narrative – in much the way that Suzuki keeps having to go back to Shizuoka – to savour the workings of all its details. Suffice it to say that this story, restricted almost entirely to Suzuki’s point of view, also comes with an implicit female perspective that casts a rather different complexion on events. Adapted (by Tete Inoue) from Kurumi Inui’s 2004 novel of the same name, Initiation Love invites viewers to return to the songs and stylings of the more innocent times of their ’80s youth, before finally confronting them with the experience of adulthood. Director Tsutsumi, best known for the SPEC and 20th Century Boys film series, delivers a trickily bittersweet chronicle of falling in and out of love – where the past is always present.

© Anton Bitel