Love Fight steers itself into familiar romantic comedy territory, but has enough pathos to make it one engaging drama about first loves, denial, and of course, boxing. But this is no Million Dollar Baby despite some minor similarities in characters and set up, being far from it with its relatively fluffy take on boxing, and without any major weepie moments. The pairing of both Kento Hayashi and Kie Kitano seems to be perfect as the proteges of a one time boxing champion, one being offensive, with the other being defensive in nature.
Minoru Tachibana (Kento Hayashi) is a wimp, never dare raising a hand at anyone. Timid, meek and good natured,, thus being a constant bully fodder. Things don't get any easier for him when childhood friend Aki Nishimura (Kie Kitano) grows into a beautiful lass, and boys who want to get to know her, bullies Minoru into setting up dates, or if misunderstood, they just want to take potential rivals like himself out of the equation. In comes Aki to save the day, as she has an angelic face with deadly skills (watch out for those roundhouse kicks!), or as put, a ferocious beast hidden under the pure facade. She deftly deals with all of Minoru's bullies, and it becomes a wash-rinse-repeat cycle that Minoru could endure no longer, one which requires constant protection from a girl.
The narrative shifts over the course of this movie, being somewhat like a jack of all trades, going from subplot to subplot with much needed depth, but at times isolating all the other narrative threads totally, that it could have felt it was 2 movies put together. However, as a whole it is still thoroughly engaging and well paced, and I found myself lapping it all up.
Set in Osaka, the 2 major threads see the love-hate relationship between Aki and Minoru, as they blow hot and cold (usually), while you just wonder how long it will take before they start to realize how perfect they are for each other. But of course in comes Kyoko Okuda who takes a liking for Minoru, and what I thought would be fantastic (but wasn't exploited) was how Kyoko's research into Aki's weaknesses could have provided some added advantage, and especially dangerous should the information fall into the wrong hands. The other thread belongs to Takao Osawa as Joe Ohki, a one time national boxing champion who has fallen into hard times because of losing the love of his life, Junko Misuki, now a minor actress. It chronicles how two has-beens and old flames have been trying to reconnect with each other. This runs in parallel to the romantic story of the younger generation, and put side by side, makes for excellent contrast.
And of course the fun factor here is the boxing scenes, where you get the usual training montage of all the students under training in Ohki Boxing Gym under the management of Joe and his chief trainer Mr Takae. Especially funny is how the wimpy Minoru starts off his toughening regime, while Aki provides her own brand of comical relief in the way Joe tries to harness her raw power and energy into a disciplined manner, since she's constantly left exposed by her aggression and without defensive skills, leaving her quite vulnerable.
There are some really poignant moments as well that might tug at your heartstrings, with its standard melodramatic offering in having the master, for the love of his gym and the aspirations of his two fledging students, decide to make some compromises with his values. And what I found to be totally strange, is how the character of Kyoko gets completely forgotten midway in the movie, only to resurface with a revelation that I thought could be properly handled or build up on, rather than to have a sleight of hand change.
Despite its really minor flaws, this is certain to be a definite crowd pleaser especially with the star power of Kento Hayashi and Kie Kitano, touted as the Gen-Next in Japanese Cinema. It has comedy, a simple to follow story, well-acted roles and as a feel-good movie, it just doesn't get any better than what this movie has to offer. One of my personal favourites in the festival to date.