It was only after Adam Torel of Third Window Films, one of the main programmers at the Raindance Film Festival, decided to distribute Greatful Dead (2014) [Our review can be read here), that Eiji Uchida approached him with the idea of creating Lowlife Love (2016), a narrative about a muddling indie-filmmaker who one day meets a promising actress and a guy with a interesting screenplay.
This collaboration, which only became possible after Torel sold of his record collection, proved to be an international success, playing at many different festivals over the world. After this success, it was only logical that Torel and Uchida would join forces and partner up once again. This time they present Love And Other Cults.
The narrative starts when three nerdy virgins of Minami High School try to call a phone number they found in the toilets: “call me for sex, Yoko”. Not sure if she’ll come – it might be a prank, all three are surprised when Ryota Sakuma (Kenta Suga) and Ai Shima (Sairi Ito), introduced as Yoko the legendary slut, arrive.
The three boys get awkwardly excited the prospect of sex, but, before long, black guy Kenta (Antony) and the blond Yuji (Kaito Yoshimura), who are working for the small time boss Kido (Denden), arrive. They put a price tag of 50000 Yen for each on Yoko’s sex service demanding it to be paid the day after. Ai Shima, before she leaves with the others, whispers silently to the virgin boys: “help me, please”. And then Ryota tells the spectator that he fell in love with her at first sight.
Love and Other Cults is mostly told in a linear fashion – with only one flash-back to note. While the spectator follows Ryota’s subjectivity, his narrating voice orienting him in the narrative, the narrative concerns the life-story of Ai Shima, exploring her past of parental neglect, her seven-year stay in a cult and her present search for a place to belong. The centrality of this search in the narrative makes the central theme of Love And Other Cults appear: the statute of human relationships in society as such. By following Ai’s symbolic search for a place where she can belong, the narrative gently evokes the various, quite often problematic sides that characterize the act of engaging in relationships.
One of the imaginary sides made explicit is the possible retreat of women in male objectification, by way of appropriating a male desired image. This is for instance illustrated in the short hostess bar scene. As hostess bars are places where human relationships are sold as a commodity, the reaction of Yuka’s dad, when he finds out Ai works there as a hostess, implies nothing other than that Ai performed an ideal image to ensure herself of a symbolic place in the love of Yuka’s parents (psycho-note 1). An even more important side evoked in Love And Other Cults is the fact that a symbolic structure, a network of signifiers able to give someone a place, is not enough to truly find a home as a subject. The yakuza structure, as featured in Kenta’s and Reika’s narrative, is such a formal structure. While there is a place for Kenta determined on a formal symbolic level, his true emotional belonging is, in the end, revealed as lying elsewhere. This kind of schism will ultimately find its repetition in the conclusion of Ai and Ryota’s narrative (narra-note 1).
Eiji Uchida has composed Love and Other Cults in a very visual attractive and fluid way. The fluidity by which the narrative space is painted is to be found in the mix between fixed temporally long shots, often steady, but mostly subjected to a minor drifting unsteadiness, and the slow camera movement. This fluidity is furthermore enhanced by Hiroyuki Onogawa’s pop-punk-like music – infusing some scenes with some lightheartedness as well. The visual attractiveness is to be found in the composition within a given frame, the interesting and often artful ways in which Uchida positions his characters and changes these positions in the framed narrative space.
The narrative is supported by some very strong acting performances, most notably the performance of Sairi Ito, who brings a nuanced depth to Ai’s search for a place to belong, and the performance of Kenta Suga, who sensibly reveals his shyness and reluctance to act on his feelings (Narra-note 2). Kaito Yoshimura, for that matter, paints a typical small-time Yakuza on the silver screen, with his dirty language and expressive gestures and facial expressions.
While Love And Other Cults lacks some punch and often fails, partially due to the short running time, to treat its themes more deeply, it is still an extremely enjoyable narrative. At times lighthearted, at times more darkly serious, Love and Other Cults‘s subtle blend of various emotional layers, does evoke the difficulties a subject can have in finding a place to call home, implicitly implying that a sense of belonging is only to be found in a place conditioned by one or more meaningful human relations as such.
Narra-note 1: While the porn industry give Ai a formal place as an AV-actress, the conclusion of the narrative also reveals that her emotional belonging lies with Kenta.
Narra-note 2: The fact that Kento never acts or is not able to act on his feelings, should be seen as a cultural trope often present in Japanese romance movies.
Psycho-note 1: The fact that a symbolic place has been ensured is illustrated in this narrative by the use of the Japanese signifiers of father, mother and sister. These signifiers create a symbolic space, where a subject can find its place by identifying with the signifier that denotes that place.