As an actor, Suzuki Matsuo (best known internationally for his double role as the twin psychopathic detectives in Ichi the Killer) falls into the same category as the ubiquitous Naoto Takenaka, recycling the same hyperactive comedy act in film after film. There is more to him than meets the eye, however. Much loved by his peers, Matsuo is something of a renaissance man: an award-winning playwright and stage director, novelist, columnist, essayist and occasional manga artist to boot.
Koi No Mon marks another credit to his list and sees him making his debut as a film director. His adaptation of Jun Hanyunyuu's manga carries all the hallmarks of Matsuo's flamboyant personality: it's fast-paced, exuberantly energetic and vibrantly colourful, and features an ensemble of highly spirited performances, even from those you would least expect. Matsuo himself, ironically, is at his most subdued and collected in his role as the owner of a manga bar.
The film, whose title translates as 'The Gate of Love', revolves around the turbulent romantic push and pull between a pair of manga-obsessed nerds. Mon Aoki (Matsuda) is an empty-pocketed oddball who considers his devotion to manga an art form, and whose very peculiar approach to the medium consists of arranging painted stones in wooden boxes. One day while he stoops to pick up a rock at the roadside, Akashi Koino (Sakai) plants her high heel into the back of his hand and, yes, it's thunderbolt city.
Koino, a successful amateur manga artist, sees in Mon the ideal foil for her cosplay fanaticism and after getting him drunk she dresses him up as the male hero from her favourite video game. Her definition of a knight in shining armour is a geek who fits her self-made costume and Mon seems to be right candidate. He, however, is thoroughly disappointed with her geeky attitude and is out the door as soon as he realises that he didn't lose his virginity after all in the wake of their drunken binge. Koino is not about to let him slip away that easily and thus begins a game of will-they-or-won't-they, set against a background of manga bars, anime singalongs and the Tokyo Comicket.
With two such fresh and sprightly leads, Koi No Mon's portrayal of the world of manga fandom doesn't exactly qualify as naturalist. Ryuhei Matsuda is hardly the image of your typical virginal comic book nerd (but neither was the character in Hanyunyuu's original manga) and his torn clothes are distinctly designer (recognisably the work of Michiko Kitamura, whose 'ripped rags' approach to costume design was also seen to good effect in Tsukamoto's Gemini, Miike's Ichi the Killer and Kurosawa's Bright Future), but there is no questioning his conviction as an actor here. Mon's stone manga art may be slightly too outrageous an idea for its own good, but Matsuda is unshaken in getting across the character's belief in his work. Sakai is appealing and if given half a chance her potential as a dramatic actress might well surprise us in the years to come.
Frankly, romantic drama isn't Koi No Mon's strongest aspect. There's little doubt that Koino and Mon will end up in each other's arms at some point before the end credits, but then again don't they always in romantic comedies? The film's strength lies in its oddball charm and its infectious exuberance, a pair of fine lead actors and a host of rib-nudging cameos and bit parts by real-life manga artists, animators, musicians and film directors. No one's definition of genius, but doubtlessly quite a few people's definition of two hours of fun.