The Lowlife (最低, Takahisa Zeze, 2017)

The Lowlife 2017In terms of the mainstream cinema industry, the AV (“adult video”) world is viewed with suspicion and distain. AV is where unlucky women end up after having the misfortune to encounter unscrupulous yakuza or be born to feckless parents whose debts they are forced to pay with their bodies. However, mainstream cinema perhaps has a reason to demonise its rival on top of reflecting persistent social stigmas relating to the expression of sexuality. Takahisa Zeze began his career in “pink film”, which is to say softcore pornography, and casts a non-judgemental eye over the modern hardcore porn scene in The Lowlife (最低, Saitei), adapting a novel by AV actress and gravure model Mana Sakura which explores the lives of three women who each have been impacted by the industry.

The first two of our heroines – college dropout Ayano (Kokone Sasaki), and melancholy housewife Miho (Ayano Moriguchi), have made a free choice to enter the AV industry mostly out of loneliness and insecurity. Ayano, who claims to be the only “ugly” one among her many sisters, is convinced to take part in a porn shoot by an unscrupulous boyfriend but finds herself reassured in being adored by the camera and appreciated on set, if only briefly. Miho, meanwhile, is trapped in an unsatisfying marriage to a man who has begun sleeping in his study and continually puts off the discussion of starting a family despite Miho’s intense desire to become a mother. Checking on her husband one morning she is dismayed to find a porn DVD in the open tray of his laptop which feels like a double betrayal in that he has obviously not been “working” all night and has avoided intimacy with her while finding release somewhere else. Irritated, Miho takes the extreme decision of becoming a porn star herself as a strange kind of revenge and motion towards personal fulfilment.

Our third heroine, Ayako (Aina Yamada), however, is looking at the same problem from a different angle in that she is daughter of a single-mother who had previously worked in the porn industry before returning home to her own single-mother to start again and raise her daughter. Takako (Saki Takaoka) is a difficult, flighty woman who still likes to live the high life drinking with random guys and rolling in late or sometimes not at all to the constant worry of her anxious daughter. A gifted artist, Ayako is a shy, gloomy girl who finds it hard to connect with her peers and resents her mother for her unconventional lifestyle. Her problems intensify when she wins a prominent art prize and irritates a classmate who seems to be stalking her causing him to spread the rumour of Takako’s past all over the school.

Social stigma is indeed one of the main problems each of the women face. Ayano, who seems to be otherwise happy enough with her life AV, gets an unexpected visit from her concerned mother and scornful sister when someone presumably spots her in a video and decides to have a word. As Ayano points out to her annoyingly judgemental sister, that means whoever told them just outed themselves as an AV-watcher so perhaps she should ask her boyfriend about that before making sarky comments. Nevertheless, nobody really says anything about the men who consume pornography, only about the “immoral” women who star in them. Ayano’s mother Izumi (Makiko Watanabe) blames herself, complaining that Ayano was the only one of her daughters she never quite bonded with, by turns angry with her for “shaming” the family and concerned that she has “thrown her life away” by becoming forever tainted with the stigma of having been involved in the sex industry.

Corrupted maternity becomes a somewhat uncomfortable theme as each of the women assesses their relationships with other women in the context of the traditional family. Having given up work and become a housewife as society expects, Miho has done everything right but is intensely unhappy because her husband will not move to the next step by starting a family. At 35, she feels her life stagnating, that everything is already settled and nothing will change from now until the time she dies. Neglected by a husband who seems to have lost interest in her as a woman as well as in their shared endeavour of building a home, she finds herself drawn to AV as a path to sexual fulfilment which isn’t really infidelity while also subverting her image of superficial perfection and embracing another identity outside of the home. She remains, however, conflicted as she gazes jealously at a happy family out on holiday at the pleasant mountain lodge where they’ll shoot the movie away from prying eyes. Her involvement in AV is, in a way, also an act of self harm as she punishes herself for her inability to become a mother, while also getting back at her disinterested husband.

Even so, Zeze is careful to frame the AV industry in a positive light. On arrival at the agency, Miho is greeted by an extremely sensitive and sympathetic manager who does his best to ease her concerns while making her feel safe at her most vulnerable. Having felt so neglected and lonely at home, the AV world provides her with a place that she is appreciated, desired as a woman and treated like a star. Similarly, Ayano who had believed herself “ugly” and unlovable begins to gain confidence in herself thanks to being appreciated by the camera, eventually striking up a relationship with a nice guy journalist in a bar which seems like it might develop into something more. While some might argue that the industry is merely exploiting feminine insecurities, it cannot be denied that both women find in it a path towards self acceptance and actualisation.

Despite the fiercely non-judgemental tone, a late plot twist further casts Miho’s transgression as a fall rather than a rise while an eventual connection with Ayako further deepens the maternal subtext as she completes the circle by mothering the lost young woman trying to come to terms with her atypical family situation. Ayako’s grandmother too seems to prescribe motherhood as the answer to all life’s mysteries even if the answer is often that they can’t be solved and all that remains is the urgency of living. Zeze’s depiction of the porn industry might be a rosy one glossing over the seamier side in favour of presenting a world built on empowerment rather than exploitation, but its infinitely sympathetic eye makes plain that porn is just a job like any other and the women who work in it do not deserve the scorn that society often chooses to heap on them.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Swimming Upstream (バタアシ金魚, Joji Matsuoka, 1990)

Swimming UpstreamSometimes love makes you do crazy things. Some people find themselves accomplishing previously unattainable feats powered only by the sheer force of romance. Unfortunately for the hero of Swimming Upstream (バタアシ金魚, Bataashi Kingyo), Joji’s Matsuoka’s adaptation of Minetaro Mochizuki’s manga, the task he sets for himself is a very lofty one indeed and may actually require him to abandon his love to complete it. Then again, the object of his affections shows little signs of reciprocation in any case.

Love found Kaoru (Michitaka Tsutsui) with a bucket of water. That is, he was hanging around one day when swimsuited beauty Sonoko (Saki Takaoka) soaked him by mistake but far from being annoyed, Kaoru falls in love at first sight and begins to pursue the star of the swim team even if she remains resolutely cold towards him. Kaoru immediately joins up just to be close to her even though he is actually afraid of water and does not know how to swim. Nevertheless he sets himself the task of becoming an olympic swimmer and bringing home a gold medal for his lady love. Needless to day, Sonoko is still not very interested in him.

Assisted by a strange old lady of swimming coach in sporting matters, and with an unlikely ally in Sonoko’s mother when it comes to romance, Kaoru works hard at his twin goals but makes little progress with either. His world is briefly shattered when he spots Sonoko arm in arm with the school’s star swimmer and he also faces a romantic dilemma in the form of his friend Pu whose motorbike he keeps borrowing to try and impress Sonoko despite the fact that Pu obviously has a crush on him. Nevertheless, Kaoru is undeterred until, that is, Sonoko’s actions convince him he may be doing more harm than good.

Matusoka’s film is most clearly concerned with recreating the contemporary high school summer for the presumed target audience of teenagers. Though it loosely adapts a classic sports movie romance format with Kaoru giving it his all in training, it stops short of the triumphant underdog trope as Kaoru never achieves the kind of sporting success one would expect. Though he quickly learns to swim and makes some progress, Kaoru retains a lingering fear of the water and is among the very weakest at the club. Still deluding himself with his Olympian dream, Kaoru even attempts to challenge the champion swimmer of another team (played by a very young Tadanobu Asano in his first film role) in a race for the rights to Kaoru. Needless to say, nothing goes his way.

If duelling over the “rights” to a girl seems like an old fashioned idea, Swimming Upstream is a very old fashioned film in terms of its sexual politics. The film stars popular idol Saki Takaoka as the unattainable Sonoko but is told very much from Kaoru’s point of view in which Sonoko is something to be won rather than another human being with independent will. Sonoko’s behaviour often is hard to categorise but, to borrow a term from the film’s manga roots, could easily be described as tsundere wherein she consistently rejects Kaoru’s advances before warming up to the idea just as he’s beginning to cool off. There may a fine line between persistence and and inappropriate behaviour but Kaoru’s level of devotion is the kind that straddles it. The teenage audience of 1990, however, may have seen things a little differently than that of today.

The audience of 1990 would doubtless also have been shocked by Sonoko’s rebellious lack of compliance with regular social norms. Far from the docile, cute, obedient and polite aura of the traditionally perfect girl next door in which idol movies specialise, Sonoko throws angry looks at everyone and talks back to her mother with extremely harsh words (though her mother wisely refuses to be shocked by them). In fact Sonoko is universally awful to everyone to the extent that it later seems that even one of her closest friends does not actually like her very much, but the worse she gets the more Kaoru refuses to be dissuaded.

Matsuoka mostly chooses to keep things simple with a light hearted, summery atmosphere primed to appeal to his audience of youngsters. Though intended as an innocent romance, contemporary audiences may read more darkness into the relentless war between the icy Sonoko and determined Kaoru but the adolescent intensity of young love does at least ring true. Caught between the quirkiness of its general tone and the heaviness of its themes, Swimming Upstream flounders in making its central connection work, rendering its overworked metaphor of a finale less than successful but does offer strong performances from both of its central stars.


Clip (no subtitles)

Midnight Diner (深夜食堂, Shinya Shokudo, Joji Matsuoka, 2015)

mainvisualYaro Abe’s manga Midnight Diner (深夜食堂, Shinya Shokudo) was first adapted as 10 episode TV drama back in 2009 with a second series in 2011 and a third in 2014. With a Korean adaptation in between, the series now finds itself back for second helpings in the form of a big screen adaptation.

Midnight Diner is set in a cosy little eatery which only opens between the hours of midnight and 7am. Presided over by the “Master”, a mysterious figure himself with a large unexplained scar running down one side of his face, the restaurant has only one regular dish on its menu but Master is willing to make whatever his customers want provided he has the ingredients. Regulars and newcomers mingle nightly each with their own, sometimes sad, stories while Master offers them a safe place to think things through coupled with his gentle, all knowing advice.

The big screen movie plays just like a series of connected episodes from the television drama yet manages unify its approach into something which feels consistently more cinematic. Keeping the warm, nostalgic tone the film also increases its production values whilst maintaining its trademark style. The movie opens with the same title sequence as its TV version and divides itself neatly into chapters which each carry the title of the key dish that Master will cook for this segment’s star. A little less wilfully melodramatic, Midnight Diner the movie nevertheless offers its gentle commentary on the melancholy elements of modern life and its ordinary moments of sadness.

Fans of the TV drama will be pleased to see their favourite restaurant regulars reappearing if only briefly, but the film also boosts its profile in the form of some big name stars including a manager of another restaurant in town played by Kimiko Yo who seems to have some kind of history with Master as well as a smaller role played by prolific indie star of the moment Kiyohiko Shibukawa and the return of Joe Odagiri whose character seems to have undergone quite a radical change since we last saw him.

The stories this time around feature a serial mistress and her dalliance with another, poorer, client of the diner; a young girl who pulls a dine and dash only to return, apologise and offer to work off her bill; a lovelorn widower who’s come to Tokyo to chase an aid worker who probably just isn’t interested in him; and then there’s strange mystery of a mislaid funerary urn neatly tieing everything together. Just as in the TV series, each character has a special dish that they’ve been longing for and through reconnecting with the past by means of Master’s magic cooking, they manage to unlock their futures too. As usual, Master knows what it is they need long before they do and though he’s a man of few words, always seems to know what to say. One of the charms of the series as a whole which is echoed in the film is that it’s content to let a few mysteries hang while the central tale unfolds naturally almost as if you’re just another customer sitting at the end of Master’s counter.

Shot in more or less the same style as the TV series favouring long, static takes the film still manages to feel cinematic and its slight colour filtering adds to the overall warm and nostalgic tone the series has become known for. Once again offering a series of gentle human stories, Midnight Diner might not be the most groundbreaking of films but it offers its own delicate insights into the human condition and slowly but surely captivates with its intriguing cast of unlikely dining companions.