Love and Other Cults (獣道, Eiji Uchida, 2017)

love and other cultsEiji Uchida’s career has been marked by the stories of self defined outsiders trying to decide if they want to move towards or further away from the centre, but in his latest film Love and Other Cults ( 獣道, Kemonomichi), he seems content to let them linger on the margins. The title, neatly suggesting that perhaps love itself is little more than a ritualised set of devotional acts, sets us up for a strange odyssey through teenage identity shifting but where it sends us is a little more obscure as a still young man revisits his youthful romance only to find it as wandering and ill-defined as many a first love story and like many such tales, one ultimately belonging to someone else.

Our lovelorn hero and narrator, Ryota (Kenta Suga), observes the heroine from afar as he tells us her story, which is also his story in a sense. Ai (Sairi Itoh), a neglected child, drifts aimlessly in an uncaring world forever seeking a place to belong but finding no safe space to drop anchor. Ai’s mother, as drifting and aimless as her daughter, attempts to find salvation through religion but her quest for self-fulfilment drags her from one spiritual fad to the next all the while pulling little Ai along with her. The pair finally end up in a cult commune where Ai is a favourite of the leader – a Westerner called Lavi (Matthew Chozick) who preaches free love but only for himself.

Eventually, the cult is raided by the police, Lavi flees, and Ai is “rescued” but the next stage in her odyssey is no less disruptive than the last as she finds herself adrift in the mainstream world. Dropped into a regular high school, Ai tries to play the regular high school girl but can’t shake the cult member inside her. Semi-adopted by an ordinary family, her life gains some normalcy but it is short-lived and before long Ai finds herself in another sort of commune altogether before ending up in teenage prostitution followed by the porn industry.

If girls like Ai end up in AV, boys like Ryota end up in gangs. So it is that Ryota gets mixed up with two equally lost wannabe gangsters in Kenta (Antony) – an outsider by virtue of non-Japanese heritage, and the blond-headed Yuji (Kaito Yoshimura) who’s watched too many movies. Kenta is the de facto head of a little band of petty delinquent kids but he’s getting bored with gangster stuff and yearns for something more real while Yuji trails around after the lollipop sucking local chieftain (Denden). Ryota looks on casually without striking out in either direction, pining for Ai but either unwilling or unable to install himself as a permanent part of her reality.

As Ryota puts it, they’re all just looking for a place to belong. They don’t care where or what that place is, but what they long for is a sense of belonging born of owning their own identities. What may be a typical teenage problem of figuring oneself out takes on a larger dimension given the general instability of the world these youngsters find themselves in. Another in the long line of recent films losing faith with the family, Love and Other Cults finds no room for a familial solution to social woes. Ai has been so definitively let down that her very idea of family is so hopelessly warped as to permanently remove the possibility from her future.

Neglected in favour of her mother’s ongoing and inconclusive search for meaning, Ai’s major attachment is to unclear spirituality but even this becomes horribly misused thanks to her involvement with a shady cult. Having become the favourite of cult leader Lavi, Ai is used to trading herself for affection and security and so when she finds herself semi-adopted by the kindly family of a friend she attempts to use these same familial mechanisms to secure her position only to end up ruining the whole thing. Re-encountering Lavi (now an AV producer) again as an adult, Ai is still unable to see the way that she has been used and misused, quickly resuming her childhood role but without the spiritual pretence.

Ryota and Ai meander aimlessly outside of each other’s orbit, neither finding the place they feel they ought to be. Tellingly, the only real story which obeys narrative rules is that of depressed thug, Kenta, who finds an unlikely soul mate in a chance encounter with a photography loving deep-sea diver, Reika (Hanae Kan). Kenta and Reika are kindred spirits whose place to belong presents itself randomly and without warning yet is found all the same. There is no cult in this love, only mutual salvation. Ai and Ryota, however, are each trapped in their respective quests for fulfilment, disconnected, visible to each other only in brief, fragmented episodes and set to drift eternally yet always in search of a place to call home.


Love and Other Cults was screened as part of the 19th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Topless (トップレス, Eiji Uchida, 2008)

toplessFollowing the surreal horror film The Greatful Dead and cynical industry exposé Lowlife Love, Eiji Uchida is not generally known for straightforward naturalism but his 2008 movie Topless (トップレス) maybe among the most refreshingly straightforward, naturalistic depictions of lesbian life in modern Japan. Inspired by the writings of Pudding Watanabe, Topless, despite the title and suggestive poster, immediately jettisons preconceptions and sets about exploring the lives of young men and women in the city, just trying to make it in an often hostile society.

Forthright Natsuko (Mina Shimizu) splits up with her high school sweetheart Tomomi (Erika Okuda) but continues to pine after her even once Tomomi reveals that she’s got herself a boyfriend and plans to try the conventional life for a while. This heavy emotional blow provokes a kind of crisis in the otherwise certain Natsuko who finds herself musing on the fate on older lesbians and expressing sympathy for those who decide it’s just easier to enter a marriage of convenience than try to live alone. For the moment, Natusko lives with her understanding flatmate, Koji (So Sakamoto), who’s been nursing a long time crush on her even if he knows she’s gay and it’s impossible. A chance meeting with a high school girl, Kana (Aya Omasa), who’s come to Tokyo to find the mother who abandoned her to run off with a lesbian lover ten years ago only deepens Natsuko’s contemplative mood as she starts to wonder about where her life will take her if she chooses not to follow the accepted path.

Topless is less about romance than it is about acceptance and identity. Natsuko maybe a member of her university’s lesbian society but she’s about as far from a flag waver as it’s possible to be and just wants to live her life without thinking too much about the big stuff. Bar one woman (a new addition and not a student) the other girls are also just hanging round to have fun, aren’t particularly interested in activism and don’t feel themselves to be part of a movement defined by their sexuality. Natsuko certainly refuses to be defined by hers though her recent falling out with Tomomi has shaken her to the core and forced her into a consideration of her own hopes and desires for the future.

Tomomi claims to still love Natsuko but also that it “can’t be helped” because they’re both women and it’s just not possible. Natsuko tries to come to terms with her friend’s decision whilst nursing a broken heart but struggles to overcome her feelings of jealously towards Tomomi’s new boyfriend. Koji, Natsuko’s roommate, can’t understand why a lesbian would marry a man but being a man himself he can’t appreciate the societal necessities which make trying to live a life outside the mainstream particularly hard for women. As Natsuko points out, women earn less and living is expensive, it’s difficult to live out and proud in a hostile society, and then there’s the fear of growing old without children or an extended family network to fallback on. Though she sympathises with all of these factors on an intellectual level and then eventually even contemplates trying out life with a man herself,  it’s not something Natsuko could ever do and a part of her can never forgive Tomomi for doing it even if she does understand why someone might.

Kana’s quest for her long lost mother gets lost between the meatier subplots but proves enlightening in the unexpected bond between the troubled schoolgirl and the shaken if confident Natsuko. Still nursing deep scars from her abandonment, Kana claims to hate lesbians but grows to like Natsuko, the only person willing to help her track down her mother in a totally unfamiliar world. Despite Koji’s protestations that Natsuko will be angry if she hears any of Kana’s anti-gay sentiments, she listens patiently to Kana’s complaints stopping only to tell her she understands why she feels that way but that she also thinks she’s wrong. Trying to help Kana understand why her mother made the decisions that she did and see that there’s nothing wrong with two women loving each other, Natsuko changes hearts and minds just by being patient and kind.

In the conventional sense Topless offers no happy endings but it does advocate first and foremost for a kind of self acceptance and finally allowing old wounds to scar over, closed but not forgotten. Normalising lesbian life with ease, Uchida proceeds with a straightforward approach which sidesteps the obvious in order to provide a more nuanced portrait of life and love among the young people of Tokyo each trying to navigate the difficult process of learning to live as an independent person constrained by social conventions. Admittedly low budget but tastefully done and anchored by a standout performance from Mina Shimizu, Topless is a refreshingly down to earth look at gay life in the big city which refuses to give in preconceptions and expectations.


Short clip from the film (English subtitles)

Lowlife Love (下衆の愛, Eiji Uchida, 2016)

Lowlife Love“What would John do?” is a question Cassavetes loving indie filmmaker Tetsuo (Kiyohiko Shibukawa) often asks himself, lovingly taking the framed late career photo of the godfather of independent filmmaking in America down from the wall. Unfortunately, if Cassavetes has any advice to offer Tetsuo, Tetsuo is not really paying attention. An example of the lowlife scum who appear to have taken over the Japanese indie movie scene, Tetsuo hasn’t made anything approaching art since an early short success some years ago and mainly earns his living through teaching “acting classes” for young, desperate, and this is the key – gullible,  people hoping to break into the industry.

Despite ripping off the next generation, Tetsuo’s financial situation is not exactly rock solid as he still lives at home with his parents and younger sister and even resorts to stealing his elderly mother’s pension money all in the name of art. A low level sociopath, he bangs on about movies and artistic integrity whilst using his directorial authority to pull young and naive would be actresses onto the casting couch with promises to make them a star through the massively successful movie he’s supposedly about to make (but probably never will).

His world is about to change when he encounters two still hopeful entrants into the movie industry in the form of aspiring actress Minami (Maya Okano) and shy screenwriter Ken (Shugo Oshinari ). Ken’s script is good, and Minami shows promise as an actress but also a backbone as she’s unwilling to give in to Tetsuo’s clumsy pass at her through what actually amounts to an attempted rape in the (unisex) toilet of a seedy bar. And they say romance is dead!

Soon enough a rival appears on the scene in the form of a more successful director who abandoned the indie world long ago in favour of the golden cage of the studio system. Tetsuo calls him a sell out, but as his own world crumbles Tetsuo finally gets a much needed reality check that leaves him wondering how much “integrity” there is in his current life which is based entirely on exploitation yet produces nothing but cheap, instant gratification.

This is a film about a sociopathic, pretentious, and above all lazy “film director” who is being cast as a representation of a certain type of guy found the lowest edges of the indie film scene. Lowlife Love seeks to illuminate the inherent misogyny in the cinema industry and more particularly at the bottom of the ladder where the desperate masses congregate, each waiting for someone to extend a hand down to those below that will help them onto the higher rungs, but this is less about the subjugation of women and the way their lack of status is consistently used against them than it is about Tetsuo’s own fecklessness. Tetsuo probably could make a movie, but he doesn’t. He just talks about making movies. The system isn’t the problem here, Tetsuo is just a useless person with almost no redeeming features.

The successful director, Kano, and the ones that follow him are barely any better. Minami says at one point that directors are all crafty, filthy, bitter, and annoying – on the basis of these examples she is not wrong. Kano replies that filmmaking is like a drug, once you’re in there’s no out and you’ll do anything just to be allowed to stay. These guys are all hollow, desperate creatures, craving validation through “artistic success” but finding it through easy, loveless sex with “obliging” actresses equally eager to play this unpleasant game solely to avoid being thrown out of it or worse onto a lower stratum altogether.

Minami’s path is either one of growth or corruption depending on your point of view but the extremely shy, naive and innocent girl dreaming of becoming, not a star, but a successful actress, is gradually replaced by a manipulative dominatrix well versed in the rules of the game and unafraid to play it to the max. Whether her success is a fall or a victory is likewise a matter for debate but it contrasts strongly with the similar struggles of the veteran actress Kyoko (Chika Uchida) who even has a friend doing research on her targets so she can assess their usefulness before going all the way.

Unfortunately for her, even when she hits on a useful contact promises are easily broken, especially when you’ve already played your only bargaining chip and another, prettier player steps onto the field. A deleted scene features an embittered actress attempting to take her own life and uttering the final words that she never cared about stardom, she just wanted to keep on acting. This is an all too real response to an age old problem but one that Tetsuo and his like are much more willing to perpetuate than ease, even whilst mourning the loss of a friend to the unreasonable demands of their own industry.

Famously funded by a Kickstarter campaign and personal sacrifices of its producer, Lowlife Love features unusually high production values for an indie film and a fairly high profile cast including its leading actor, Kiyohiko Shibukawa, who has become something close to modern Japanese indie cinema’s most recognisable star. Performances are excellent across the board though the picture the film paints of the no budget indie world is extremely bleak and mean spirited. Porn, gangsters, exploitation, prostitution, and a lot of rubbish about creating art makes one wonder why anyone bothers in the first place but then we’re back to Kano’s conundrum and taking down our pictures of Cassavetes to ask what John would do. Sleazy, unpleasant and cynical, Lowlife Love’s cast of dreadful people in difficult situations yet, apparently, dreaming of the stars, is all too plausible if a little hard to watch.


Lowlife Love (下衆の愛, Gesu no Ai) was financed through a Kickstarter campaign run by Third Window Films and is currently shipping to backers with a regular retail release scheduled for a later date.

Lowlife Love will also be shown as part of the Edinburgh International Film Festival on 22nd and 23rd June 2016.

Greatful Dead (グレイトフルデッド, Eiji Uchida, 2013)

OEO9ONpIf there’s one thing Third Window Films have proved themselves adept at, it’s finding those smaller, off kilter and cultish films that often fall through the cracks. Greatful Dead, the deliberate misspelling the title of which is only the first sign of its oddness, is the latest find in what might be thought of as “weird cinema”. Evoking comparisons with Sion Sono’s Love Exposure thanks to its christianising themes, wry tone and sheer craziness, Greatful Dead is not all together as successful but is likely to find its own fans through its undeniably cultish appeal.

Nami, like many movie heroines, starts by recounting her childhood as a lonely, neglected child. The younger of two sisters, she desperately tries to get the attention of her mother who is only interested in saving disadvantaged children in other countries whilst ignoring the needs of her own two daughters, or her father who is so entirely wrapped up in their mother that he’s barely noticed the two girls either. Eventually after her mother leaves and her father slowly disintegrates, Nami becomes increasingly isolated. After inheriting a sizeable fortune, grown-up Nami wastes her time in idle pursuits before hitting on her favourite hobby – an amateur anthropological study of the “Solitarian” or those who have driven themselves completely mad through loneliness. Her favourite kind of Solitarian is randy old men whom she likes to watch as they spiral deeper into depravity before eventually reaching their end game. Old Mr. Shiomi, who was once something of a big shot but is now an embittered old man, is her perfect specimen but after he receives a visit from a pretty Korean Christian missionary and becomes “reborn” her observational project is ruined! Mr Shiomi’s been stolen by God, what lengths will Nami go to to get him back?

Of course, the irony is Nami is the biggest Solitarian of them all and the one she’ll never be able to identify. In the accompanying DVD interviews, the director states his intention to highlight the increasing numbers of lonely, older people in Japan thanks to the declining birth rate and fracturing of traditional community bonds but in actual fact many of the Solitarians Nami identifies are younger people and some of them even appear to have quite serious mental issues which require more serious intervention. Taking frequent field trips and noting down rare specimens in a little notebook like some deranged “twitcher”, Nami joyfully enjoys the darker side of her hobby as her favourite part seems to be watching lonely people die at the zenith of their craziness. Though in fact both she and Mr. Shiomi have both in some senses chosen their lonely lives as both have rejected the interest of family members – Nami the insistences of her sister that the normal is best and to be strived for and Mr Shiomi those of his son (who may or may not be mainly interested in his money).

There is then, obviously, a veneer of social commentary, though it feels fairly thin at best. The main appeal is in the degree of tonal shifts that occur throughout the film. Starting out in a similar way to many a quirky comedy as young Nami goes to extreme lengths just to get some kind of attention from her indifferent parents, to her carefree adult life the film plunges off a cliff face about two thirds of the way through thanks to Mr. Shiomi’s “betrayal”. Where another film would end with Nami meeting another lonely person and becoming slightly less unhinged, Greatful Dead veers into some seriously dark alleyways filled with blood, murder and pensioner rape among other perversions. The wildest thing is the resurgence of Mr. Shiomi as he decides he’s mad as hell and isn’t going to take this anymore! Fighting back in an equally strange way (why does no one ever just call the police? No, sharpening a mop into a spear seems like a more rational solution), the furious battle between subject and observer is quite literally in the lap of the gods.

Greatful Dead is an undeniably enjoyable, wild ride that escalates in a gently expert manner from its black comedy beginnings to exploitation ending but never quite coalesces into something more. Its views on the place of religion in this lonely world seem a little ambiguous – would Mr. Shiomi have opened his door to the male missionary quite as readily as he opened it to a pretty Korean girl and how long would his quite radical conversion really have lasted? Is the church actually helping some of these elderly people who might just want company or exploiting them? The film doesn’t seem sure, not that it’s that much of a problem. In the end, Grateful Dead is a wild ride through crazy town and destined to become another cult classic entry in to the world of wacky Japanese horror.


Review of Greatful Dead up at UK Anime Network – released courtesy of Third Window Films this coming Monday 26th January 2015.