Lowlife Love (2016) by Eiji Uchida

Tetsuo (Kiyohiko Shibukawa) is an amateur film director. After having a small independent hit a few years before, he has decided to make this his career despite making almost no money and having little recognition. Instead, he uses his limited fame, and his acting school, to attract vulnerable women who are desperate to be cast in his films. His life is a string of cigarettes and loveless sex. A talented screenwriter named Ken (Shugo Oshinari), with dreams of big-screen success, comes to him with a script that Tetsuo is sure will provide the basis for the film that will finally see him leave his underdog existence behind. After charging him 20,000 yen for the privilege of joining his film group, Tetsuo agrees to work with him. At the same time, a naive young woman named Minami (Maya Okano) turns up at Tetsuo’s acting class to audition for him. The washed-up director, far from nurturing this young talent, attempts to take advantage of her. Minami refuses his advances, stating she is in love with Ken. Eventually, Minami manages to escape this band of struggling artists and become a successful actor (albeit by sleeping with a more famous director), leaving Tetsuo and Ken behind. The film is populated with a huge cast of enjoyable characters, such as Tetsuo’s sister Akina (Nanami Kawakami), the talentless actress Kyoko (Chika Uchida) who resorts to sleeping with directors to get roles; a successful director named Kano (Kanji Furutachi) who we learn is no less perverse and immoral than Tetsuo; Mamoru (Yoshida Hosoda), a friend of Tetsuo who makes a living selling low-budget softcore porn; and the stingy producer Kida (DenDen) who keeps recommending they add nudity to their films to make them sell.

Written and directed by Eiji Uchida, “Lowlife Love” features some stunning performances and a heady blend of love, sex and a blackly humorous commentary on the world of film-makers. Tetsuo is hardly a likeable protagonist, however relatable or sympathetic he may be in his attempts to make it as a director, as we see him sleeping around, taking advantage of people constantly, and lacking motivation. However, it is precisely this complexity that makes the film so irresistible, like a horrific car-crash that you can’t look away from, despite how traumatic it might be to witness the endless failures of this man, both in life and as a filmmaker, or the way that Minami is treated. None of the characters are particularly good or bad, they are just doing what it takes to survive in this harsh world. There is a sequence late in the film, when Minami, who has gone from powerless to completely in control breaks down in tears as she realises what she has become. You can feel her sense of frustration and upset at the complicity in the harsh system that this entails. In this heartbreaking scene we run the full gamut of emotions from lust, to anger, and despondency. Kiyohiko Shibukawa’s disreputable Tetsuo is an immoral womanizer, but we are swept along with his constantly frustrated attempts to make something of himself. Maya Okano gives a truly spellbinding performance as Minami, at first naive but gaining in confidence as she realises her own ability. The supporting cast all give great comedic performances as the seedy, disreputable sorts that seem to be commonplace in this industry. The cinematography by Kenji Noguchi is great throughout, with a few stylistic flourishes that show that unlike the protagonists they are depicting the makers of this film are at the top of their game.

Writer and director, Eiji Uchida, has created a complex tale of imperfect humans struggling with what they are doing with their lives. The emphasis on sex throughout the film is not incidental. It is these primal biological urges that seem to be the only constant driver of the characters’ behaviour. Early in the film a character comments that Tetsuo does nothing but sleep around and as the film progresses it asks the difficult question of whether there is really any more to life than that, whether all life is simply a hedonistic free-for-all, or if people are driven by more than sexual desire. It is made clear that sexual attraction, lust and jealousy are inextricably linked with people’s behaviours and even their success or failure. This is made clear in the characters of Tetsuo and Kano, who seem different only because of their varying degree of success as a filmmaker, while we discover they are both equally perverse and self-absorbed. The film also provides a stark commentary on the manipulation and exploitation, particularly of women, that seems to be prevalent in the film industry. When DenDen says there is no difference between pornography and other films, his words might be more true than he realises, as we see women treated merely as objects to satisfy men, lacking any agency of their own. Even Minami’s own success is dependent on her lowering herself to being used by directors.

In contrast to the almost relentless negative portrayal of the film industry, and perhaps the “Love” the title is referring to, we have filmmaking itself. It seems the only thing that Tetsuo is genuinely passionate about, and perhaps speaks to the ideal that through cinema and the arts we can attain something more real than reality, both an escape and at the same time an absolute truth. Film is the thing that keeps him going, despite his failures, it symbolises something that is human and at the same time beyond the seedy, everyday humanity we are forced to endure. Of course, the film’s ironic take on the industry often undermines this naïve belief, but nevertheless there is something pure in even the most despicable characters. In the end, the fact that they hold on to these dreams, of being a movie star, or creating a popular film, is what makes them poignant, believable and sympathetic.

The Perfect Education (1999) by Ben Wada

18-year old schoolgirl, Kuniko (Hijiri Kojima), is kidnapped by a 43 year old man in this crime thriller. After being taken to her captor Iwazono’s (Naoto Takenaka) house, Kuniko is told that he doesn’t want to rape her, rather to groom her into a perfect sexual partner. His intention is to experience a true love and perfect sex, connecting body and mind. Kuniko is understandably disturbed by his behaviour but appears to slowly grow closer to him.

Based on a novel by Michiko Matsuda, with a screenplay by Kaneto Shindo, “The Perfect Education” is a curious film, owing a debt to Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita” in its theme. The film begins as a thriller, but soon develops into a relationship drama, with a battle of wits between Kuniko and Iwazono. Kuniko often commands him, goads him, denigrates him, while Iwazono appears as a pathetic figure, apologetic and more of a voyeur than a real threat. He tells Kuniko early on that he will cut her if she tries to leave, but she has soon manipulated him into getting her whatever she wants, taking her on holiday, and buying her new clothes. The uncomfortable subject matter is brilliantly utilised with excellent direction, by Ben Wada, and cinematography, often leading to conflicting feelings in the audience as we watch the power struggle between these two characters. Early on we see deep, ominous shadows in Iwazono’s apartment, later replaced by brighter settings, including on their holiday to an onsen resort. The various occupants of Iwazono’s apartment block provide comic relief, again creating an slightly disturbing tone by puncturing the tense drama happening in their same residence. The classical score likewise emphasises this strange disconnect and drift between light and dark, with an often uplifting, even romantic accompaniment to Kuniko and Iwazono’s strange relationship. The way the score swells before an abrupt stop again works to manipulate the audience and make them question exactly what is happening, whether we are likewise beginning to become inured to the danger of Iwazono. Hijiri Kojima gives a spellbinding performance as Kuniko, more than a match for Naoto Takenaka’s Iwazono.

“The Perfect Education” is an erotic crime thriller with a controversial theme that many viewers may find uncomfortable. It gets at the heart of what sex and relationships are about, a battle of desires and demands, with aggressor and victim often shifting places. The film’s nuance and apparent ambivalence about the fate of Kuniko give it a certain power, confronting the audience with these events while seemingly offering little in the way of commentary itself. The film perhaps gets close to revealing unpalatable truths about humanity and the psychology of relationships, leaving much unsaid and open to interpretation. In the end, it is up to the audience to take what they will from this story, but it is undeniably one that is thought-provoking and with two excellent performances from Kojima and Takenaka.

Mandala (1971) by Akio Jissoji

Two disenchanted young men and their partners become involved in a cult in this erotic experimental film from Akio Jissoji, part two of his “Buddhist Trilogy”. We are first introduced to the two couples in a motel, where they are watched over by members of the cult. Shinichi (Koji Shimizu) and his girlfriend Yukiko (Akiko Mori), and Hiroshi (Ryo Tamura) and his girlfriend Yasuko (Hiroko Sakurai). Members of the cult rape Yukiko on a beach after knocking out Shinichi. When he comes around he also engages in sex with her unconscious body, excited by the feeling of her being in a death-like state. They are later introduced to the cult led by Maki (Shin Kishida), who are self-substitent through agricultural work, and whose aim is to stop time, to step outside the boundaries that constrain normal human society. They believe that eroticism is a means to achieving this, putting them in a state that is beyond the temporal.

Written by Toshiro Ishido and directed by Akio Jissoji, “Mandala” is a difficult work to watch, not only as it features rape, abortion, and suicide, but also for the complex blend of political, philosophical, and religious thought that comprises the plot. If you have seen “This Transient Life”, the first part of Jissoji’s “Buddhist Trilogy”, the similarities in style here will be apparent throughout, from specific camera moves and angles to the way certain conversational scenes are framed and blocked. This film is largely in colour, utilising black and white to great effect in creating a distance and contrast with particular mindsets. We largely see the black and white appear later in members of the cult who have given themselves over to the notion of rejecting time, or living in a liminal state on the cusp of death, while the colour represents perhaps the clear eyed view of life as it truly is. The minimal score, again by Toru Fuyuki, includes pipe organ music and a soundscape of ticking clocks, further emphasising the theme and ominous presence of time. Again there are heavy religious overtones to the work, with close-ups of prayer beads and Buddhist imagery of demons throughout.

The story itself is relatively straightforward, although the actions of the characters, particularly the cult members, may be almost impossible to understand at first. Essentially the protagonists are looking for an escape from their lives; they are failed revolutionaries, who see in the cult a means of transcending the human world, becoming something outside of it. One of the men throws himself wholly into this new religion, abandoning his sense of time, his connection with the living world, subsuming himself into the eternal, while the other finds it harder to disengage from humanity, largely sickened by what he sees as nothing more than a debauched sex/death cult. The film tackles themes of political disenchantment, religious fervour, eroticism, mankind’s relationship with time and death, and nihilism, or the rejection of what we might consider human values. The political and philosophical diatribes that the characters go on certainly leave you with questions about the right and wrong path for people, and the film’s ambiguities, including a particularly dark ending, mean that it stays with you long after it is over.

This Transient Life (1970) by Akio Jissoji

Siblings begin an illicit, incestuous affair in this erotic drama touching on lust and faith from Akio Jissoji. 21-year old Masao Hino (Ryo Tamura) is a disappointment to his father, neither attending university or wishing to follow him into the family business. His friend, priest Ogino (Haruhiko Okamura), introduces him to Master Mori (Eiji Okada), who is hard at work carving a statue of Kanon, goddess of harmony, for his temple. While their parents are away Masao begins a sexual relationship with his 25-year old sister Yuri (Michiko Tsukasa). In order to keep this secret from their parents he tells her she must marry Iwashita (Kotobuki Hananomoto), their groundskeeper. Masao moves away to become an apprentice to Master Mori, later beginning an affair with Mori’s wife, Reiko (Mitsuko Tanaka).

Akio Jissoji’s “This Transient Life”, from a script by Toshiro Ishido, is a beautifully artistic film, displaying its creativity in every frame and scene; fluid direction is used to create a sense of life and vibrancy. A striking example of this is in the scene where the camera snakes its way through the Hino home, following Masao and Yuri, becoming voyeur documentarist while capturing an emotionality and physicality that draws the audience into the moment. The cinematography likewise creates stunning shots that seem full of metaphor and meaning, with angles emphasizing elements of the setting, such as the immovable stones of the temple or the ranks of statues that stand silent watch. These alongside the extreme close-ups help draw a distinction between the living and the dead, the transient and the eternal, in keeping with the themes of the film. The music by Toru Fuyuki is also used in an descriptive capacity, with sudden stings emphasising characters coming to stark, often shocking, realisations. Underlying all of this cinematic inventiveness is a story that harks back to ancient tragedies, drawing in timeless themes of sex, lust and faith. As with the chiaroscuro lighting, the choices faced by the characters are often stark, though their apparent simplicity belies a cauldron of roiling passions and competing desires. Aside from the sex scenes, the action is surprisingly static, with characters often lost in self-reflection or in discussion with others. The real action here is on an emotional and philosophical level, and the actors do a fantastic job with the nuanced portrayals of these characters, striving towards higher purpose in an apparently godless world.

“This Transient Life” is the first of Jissoji’s “Buddhist Trilogy”, though you do not need to be a scholar of the religion to appreciate the themes expressed. They are universal and timeless, a conflict between base human desire and a quest for something more, something transcendent or spiritual, that people have striven for throughout history. Masao is a man who appears to have no morality. As he explains to Ogino the priest, his lack of belief in heaven and hell leads him to act as he will, unconstrained by human law. At several points throughout the film he asks questions of Mori and Ogino that shake their faith. He is a rogue element in a society that is strictly conditioned to follow the precepts set down by religious orders, in this case Buddhist ideals and the notion of a correct or just path. His lust for his sister is a sin that cannot be countenanced by his friend, but in his worldview, the fact that he has the capacity and will to commit such an act seems at odds with any divine plan for humanity. Masao and Ogino have a tete-a-tete in which his troubling philosophy is offered up to the monk, who rejects it, but not without being shocked by its potential truthfulness. The ambiguous nature of the film, in particular the shocking ending, allows the audience to make up their own mind about both faith and morality. A stunning film that illustrates a deeply controversial and thought-provoking story with supreme artistry.

Inferno of Torture (1969) by Teruo Ishii

Unable to pay her debts, Yumi (Yumiko Katayama) is taken by Samejima (Haruo Tanaka) to a brothel specialising in sadomasochism. All the women there are tattooed with elaborate designs across their backs. Yumi falls for Horihide (Teruo Yoshida), who is tasked with tattoing her. Horihide is hoping to win a competition by the Shogun to produce the greatest tattoo, the prize of which is the Shogun’s daughter Osuzu (Masumi Tachibana), against his rival Horitatsu (Asao Koike). Meanwhile, the brothel where Yumi works is dealing with a wealthy foreigner who delights in the tattooed women they provide.

Teruo Ishii continues his ero-guro series of historical films with “Inferno of Torture”, a complex tale of sex, violence and revenge. Unlike previous films, “Shogun’s Joy of Torture” (1968) and “Orgies of Edo” (1969), this film is not comprised of short stories, but is a singular narrative. This leads to more complexity, with several plot threads coming together. The film features the now familiar scenes of torture at the beginning, but also a structure of flash-forwards to generate a sense of dreadful expectation as events unfold. While the film is packed with action, some of the plots do get tangled and hard to follow, lacking a substantial resolution. While Yumi begins the film, it ends with Horihide, in an unexpected yet not quite satisfactory conclusion. Similarly, the introduction of a group of prisoners who are sold into prositution fails to develop beyond providing several moments of humour and action. The two male members of their group offer comic relief, but as with the rest of the film, there seems to be little significance to their characters beyond this. Despite its lack of depth the film is stunning to look at, with colourful costumes and sets, and some creative direction. Writer-director Ishii again conscripts long-term collaborators in composer Masao Yagi and cinematographer Motoya Washio, as well as many cast member returning from his earlier films. The chase through the market is one of the best examples of the creativity that is evident throughout, using the environment to full effect. In typical Ishii style, plot is set aside at several points in favour of provocative sequences of nudity or violence, often both. The parade of half-naked ladies at the Shogun’s court for example. The pounding of traditional drums in Masao Yagi’s score helps the sense of tension and underscore the violence, helped by the sound design of cracking bamboo lashes in the background.

“Inferno of Torture” shows the dark underbelly of the period, with the mistreatment of women a continuing theme through Ishii’s work. Novel elements here include the two transgender characters and the foreign villain. Little is made of the transgender experience in the film, the characteres serving solely as comic relief, but it perhaps reflects Ishii’s modus operandi in smuggling contemporary sexual politics into his historical dramas. While in “Shogun’s Joy of Torture” the foreign Christian women were very much the victims of Japan’s oppressive anti-Christian doctrine; here we have the introduction of a foreign villain, reflecting post-war Japanese reconsideration of their relationship with the outside world. There are a number of historical films that touch on the foreign influence in Japan, both positive and negative, no doubt filmmakers seeing historical echoes through the post-war period of American occupation with earlier waves of immigration and what they brought to the country. As with much else in the film there are potential readings left open to the viewers interpretation. The film appears content to provide an exciting ero-guro revenge film, leaving aside the more satirical bite of other works, but nevertheless still has at its heart some of these ideas presented less prominently, or stridently. An entertaining film that manages to pack in so many elements, while it is not always cohesive, it never fails to surprise, excite and shock.