Life: untitled (2020) review

Introduction

While Kana Yamada, who founded the Logic Theatre Company and heralded a method of performance, already tried her hand at making short films with Night Flight (2016) and the award-winning Shinjuku Girl (2018), she take the plunge and adapts one of her stage plays into her first feature-length film. Her debut does not only star Sairi Ito (Love and Other Cults (2017), Little Miss Period (2019)), but also Yuri Tsunematsu (Before We Vanish (2017)), Aimi Satsukawa (Day and Night (2019)), Kokoro Morita (Ice Cream and the Sound of Raindrops (2018)) and Reiko Kataoka (Liverleaf (2018), Just Only Love (2019)).

Review

While Kano (Sairi Ito) always had an ordinary, average lifestyle, her various failures to land a job ultimately compels her to apply for a job as call girl – no penetration, handjob only. She is immediately hired, but soon realizes, at her very first rendezvous, that she is not cut out to do this kind of work. Nevertheless, she remains working at the office, but as a staff-member.

Life: Untitled is as much an exploration of female escorts as it an examination of feminine subjectivity as such. It might even be more correct to state that Kana Yamada approaches the question of feminine subjectivity through the lens of interactions between sex-workers and the way sex-work as institution is inscribed in Japanese society as such.

Life: Untitled (2020) by Kana Yamada

The exploration of the relations between the various escorts immediately reveals that these relations are marked by imaginary conflict. Even though the escort-girls share speech, jokes, and laughter, the underlying dynamic of their interactions is one of competition. Behind the empty exchanges and the superficial friendliness lies nothing but imaginary conflicts of jealousy.

The aspect of competition – who is the top girl? – that structures the relations between these women is function of their beauty, as gauged by the pleasure-seeking look of male subjects. The reason why male subjects seek female beauty is to seize the female body for some masturbatory satisfaction. But, as Life: Untitled beautifully shows, the position of the sex-worker, the position of someone who willingly gives her body as masturbatory device for any male subject whatsoever, ultimately remains a position devoid of respect. In short, the monetization of sex does not come with any form of respect and, in many cases, short-circuits any possibility to attain a true inter-subjective romance (Narra-note 1).  

Life: Untitled (2020) by Kana Yamada

Kano’s repeated references to the famous Japanese folk-story of the hare and the tanuki concerns the superficiality of the imaginary as well. What she laments is, in fact, nothing other than the ease by which male subjects are duped by female beauty and that men, being blinded by this beauty, fail to see the female subject behind the mesmerizing veil of beauty.

These women are not the failure of society as such, as Riya suggests at one point in the narrative, but the victim of the society’s failure. And while their choice to enter sex-work is better than rotting and dying, this position, as it is dictated by the male drive for masturbatory pleasure and structured by the male desire to exploit the female body, brims with imaginary conflict and forbids any genuine expression of subjectivity. Yet, these women demand. Even if their position, a position equated by Yamashita to garbage, leaves no room for their demands to be expressed, it is a demand that led most of them (including Kano) to choose the occupation of sex-worker. And is the fundamental demand, when all is said and done, not a demand for love (Narra-note 2)?  

Life: Untitled (2020) by Kana Yamada

Life: Untitled is composed by Kana Yamada with a pleasing energy. Fixed moments are fluidly combined with dynamic moments in a pleasing whole that sucks – pardon the pun – the spectator right into its narrative. What nevertheless stands out the most in Yamada’s thoughtful composition is her use of, what we would call, the ‘narrating’ voice. While the ‘narrating’ voice is applied in a conventional way, the way Yamada transforms the ‘narrating’ voice in the opening of her narrative – Kano addressing the spectator while looking him straight in the eye – radically alters how the spectator experiences her narrative. Kano’s speech reveals the spectator as representatives of society and, subsequently, forces him/her to assume partial responsibility for society’s failure to value the existence of the various women of the narrative within its contemporary constellation. As a result, Life: Untitled turns into rather confronting exploration of how these female subjects, lacking the appreciation of the societal structure we, as spectators, are made to represent, struggle to make something of their existence.  

Life: Untitled is an amazing narrative that will nevertheless, due to its subtle political nature, divide audiences. Yamada’s narrative, which culminates in a powerful finale, forces the spectator to face the failure of society and its male subjects to value the very subjectivity of women. Life: Untitled shows, in a confronting way, the necessity for male subjects to lay down their eroticizing gaze and meet a woman as a subject, as someone who is driven by unconscious desires and own demands as well as marked by her own failure of understanding herself.    

Notes

Narra-note 1: When Ryota refuses Kyoko’s advances, he refuses her because she is, in his mind, tainted and because he is, due to the image he has of her, unable to consider Kyoko as subject. For Ryota, Kyoko is only a worthless sexual exchange object that allows him to earn money.

Narra-note 2: It is not difficult to see that the hysterical demand for love underpins the imaginary conflicts and the jealousy between the women.

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