Yukihiko Tsutsumi transforms an “un-filmable” novel into an emotionally sophisticated piece of entertainment—with a jaw-dropping twist you won’t see coming or soon forget.


Initiation Love (2015)

Directed by Yukihiko Tsutsumi Starring Shota Matsuda,
Atsuko Maeda, Fumino Kimura, Takahiro Miura and Noritake Kinashi

Screenplay by Tete Inoue, based on the novel by Kurumi Inui

A heartfelt, 1980s coming-of-age story of a young man navigating his responsibilities as an adult and his conflicted emotional attachments to two very different women.


“Atsuko Maeda leads a winning cast in a surprisingly affecting piece of pop cinema.”

Initiation Love opens with a warning to the audience: “The last five minutes of this film contain a big surprise. Please do not tell others and give away the ending!”

Kurumi Inui’s novel was a publishing phenom- enon when it was first released in 2004: an off-kilter romance with a controversial twist in its final two lines that drove readers back to reread the book from a new perspective. The book was considered un-filmable until director Yukihiko Tsutsumi took up the challenge. The result is slick, crowd-pleasing entertainment that imaginatively transcends the standard love triangle model.

The film is set in the 1980s and, like the cassette tapes of that decade, is divided into two sides—A and B. Side A takes us to Shizuoka City and introduces an awkward and overweight Yuki Suzuki. Invited as a filler on a konpa group date, he meets the pretty and disarmingly forthright Mayu (Atsuko Maeda). A gallant gesture on Yuki’s part piques Mayu’s interest and—in accordance with tested rom-com tradition—she pursues him. She nicknames him Takkun and mentors him on fashion, hair and etiquette; he pledges to get in shape and takes up running. At this point the film flips to Side B and we are presented with a completely transformed Takkun (Shota Matsuda), now fit, confident and handsome. (A slightly improbable metamorphosis, but we are still in rom-com mode!)

When Takkun is transferred to Tokyo, he pledges to return to Mayu regularly despite entering into the exhausting life of a company employee with its long hours and compulsory drinking parties. At one such party, Takkun catches the eye of coworker Miyako (Fumino Kimura), a sleek, sophisticated and slightly aloof beauty.

Takkun soon finds his allegiance to Mayu tested as his visits to the countryside decrease in frequency. Miyako explains the idea of “initiation love”—a rite-of-passage romance which ultimately must be let go on the path to maturity. The two begin an affair and it is here that the film enters darker territory. Mayu becomes pregnant; Takkun is emotionally conflicted, desperate and shocked by his own cruelty. As things progress with Miyako, the wounded Mayu remains in his thoughts. Takkun is torn between the woman who made him who he is and the woman his new self wants.

Matsuda and Kimura make an appealing pair, but it is Maeda who owns and elevates the film. Her Mayu fascinates; lively, sweet and vulnerable but also disconcerting in her control and manipulation of Takkun in early scenes, she is central to our emotional investment in the film.

If director Tsutsumi and screenwriter Tete Inoue are to be faulted, it would be for their too-heavy reliance on easy nostalgia: the nonstop 1980s J-pop soundtrack, while evocative to Japanese viewers, may sound trite to foreign audiences.

Distracting too is the promise of “the big twist,” but I am happy to report that when the twist does arrive, it works nicely and the film is better for it. Movies are often tied up too neatly, leaving us to exit the cinema without much to mull over. Initiation Love will leave you thinking and talking—and likely wanting to watch it again.

Initiation Love’s Canadian premiere is scheduled for the Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival on November 12. www.reelasian.com