“Killing is easy. Revive me instead!” The heroine of Kana Yamada’s Life Untitled (タイトル、拒絶, Title: Kyozetsu) exclaims during a climactic argument, trying to find meaning in a life of ceaseless transaction. Adapting her own play, Yamada sets her tale of existential disappointment in an apartment used as an HQ for a group of call girls, each with their own problems but trying to live as best they can within the compromising environment of a patriarchal society which offers them little in the way of hope for a less depressing future.
According to the agency’s top girl Riyu (Tomoko Nozaki) “everyone here is a failure of society”. Asking herself whether her painfully “ordinary” life was worth much of anything, Kano (Sairi Ito) resolved to become the hare rather than the tortoise, put on her recruit suit and submitted her CV to “Crazy Bunny”, a “delivery” company offering services only hinted at on the menu. Discovering that sex work was something she couldn’t handle, she managed to switch sides, becoming part of the management team taking “orders” and dispatching other women to various love hotels in the surrounding area, which means of course that she is privy to most of the interoffice drama even if she has little knowledge of these women’s external lives beyond that which they offer up freely as part of their work.
The women who work at the agency, if you can call it that, are a varied bunch almost as if Yamashita, the thuggish boss running the operation on behalf of an older man (Denden), has made an effort to cater to all tastes. Three of the ladies gossip about ridiculous clients and their excuses for not wanting to use protection (including a fake medical certificate), while openly taking potshots at an older woman, Shiho (Reiko Kataoka), who has been selected as a substitute for the in demand Mahiru (Yuri Tsunematsu). Older women are cheaper they giggle, though the oldest of them, Atsuko (Aimi Satsukawa), is not so young herself and perhaps aware that she’s reaching a crisis point as she ages of out of the “most desirable” demographic. Kano thinks of Mahiru as the office’s hare in comparison to her patient tortoise, an embodiment of faceless desire wanted by all known by none.
Mahiru too is well aware of her appeal and an expert in manipulating it. She loves money, she says, because she wants to use it to “buy someone’s life to burn the garbage inside me”, later vowing to “buy a person who can serve me for life”. Carrying the burden of childhood trauma and sexualised from an early age, Mahiru is distrustful of relationships not based on transaction but perhaps craving something deeper while darkly yearning to burn the city of Tokyo to the ground. As it happens she is not the only one yearning to raze this society for the various ways in which it condemns women like her to a kind of underclass while men continue to live by a double standard that allows them to “buy” female bodies but resents the women who “sell” them.
Another young woman, Kyoko (Kokoro Morita), finds this out to her cost in her difficult romance with the agency’s driver Ryota (Syunsuke Tanaka) with whom she slept for free while they were both drunk. She claims to understand him, that they are really both alike, soft people trying to look hard in order to survive in a cruel society. But he rejects her, asking who’d want to date a “hooker” like her, echoing Riyu’s words that she is “utterly worthless” by virtue of her life in sex work. Kyoko may be right and he likes her too, but he can’t let go of the idea that there is something “humiliating” about being romantically involved with a woman who has sex with men for money.
Yamashita, meanwhile, is breaking all the rules of the trade by having sex with the girls he runs sometimes paying but perhaps sometimes not, wielding his position of power for sexual gratification before finally unmasking himself in describing the women as “garbage waiting to be thrown away”, disposable merchandise to be used and discarded once no longer useful to men like him. Kano might have been under no illusions as to Yamashita’s character, but the depths of his callousness surprise her. She’d developed a fondness for his underling, Hagio. (Hagio), who seemed sensitive and kind but turns out to have more than she’d expected in common with the girls while continuing to engage in the double standard, insisting that those who pay for sex are stupid, deluded for falling in love with those who only want money.
Kano thought her “ordinary” life was “pathetic” and wanted to know if a “tortoise” like her could become the protagonist of her own story only to remain on the sidelines, a patient observer of these women’s lives while not quite as conflicted as you might expect her to be in her complicity with their exploitation. “A woman who ran away wouldn’t understand” Riyu fires back on being pushed for her refusal to entertain an unpleasant client, and perhaps it’s true, she wouldn’t because she works for the other side. She decides that perhaps it’s alright for her life not to have a “title”, meandering aimlessly without clear purpose but continuing all the same while the women take their particular kinds of revenge against a misogynistic and oppressive society ruled by male violence. Fully taking the play off the stage, Yamada depicts the lives of sex workers with a melancholy empathy quietly enraged at the society which forced them into lives they may not have asked for or wanted but discriminates against them simply for doing a job which is in essence like any other. “It’s not my fault” a high school girl instantly answers when questioned by a policeman, and you know, it really isn’t.
Life: Untitled is available to stream in the US until July 30 as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.
Original trailer (English subtitles)