The once-thriving Japanese indie scene is in trouble , nearly everyone who has anything to do with it agrees: Its core young audience has been seduced by the dubious delights of the multiplex, while the “mini theaters” (art houses) and small distributors that could once count on the occasional indie hit to keep them afloat are either closing their doors or shifting their strategies.
As a consequence, many indie filmmakers are finding their budgets shrinking or vanishing altogether. I don’t know whether Nobuteru Uchida is among the financially hard-pressed, but this two-time winner at the Pia Film Festival, Japan’s leading discoverer of indie talent, came up with a production plan for his third feature, “Fuyu no Kemono (Love Addiction),” worthy of emulation in both its simplicity and cheapness.
His entire film, winner of the Grand Prize at the 2010 Filmex film festival, is essentially four talented young actors and a handful of locations — a train station passageway, an apartment and the rural countryside — that looks to have required no permissions, sets or preparations beyond basic lighting.
Of course, simply and cheaply made does not equal good, since bad writing, acting and directing in a no-budget film are exposed with a nakedness that money can often veil, if not completely cover. But Uchida, who also plotted, shot and edited his drama of the love troubles of four young coworkers, keeps emotions on the boil from tempestuous beginning to ambiguous end.
At the same time, a handheld, up-close, largely improvised style, as well as a complete absence of back story (we have no idea how the four met or even what sort of work they do) makes the verbal outbursts and sometimes violent actions feel like urgent news flashes from the heart. He pushes this approach to the point of melodrama, with its manipulations of circumstance and emotion, but he also captures moments of awkward vulnerability and heated revelation that have the rawness of the real thing. What could have been a stagy actors’ workshop exercise instead becomes a film with strongly individual, if deeply flawed, characters and a certain universality. If you haven’t been in at least one of this quartet’s shoes, you haven’t been in a painful, miserable but somehow impossible to quit love affair.
First we meet Yukako (Megumi Kato) and Shige (Hiroyuki Sato), a couple slowly drifting apart, while more or less living together. Shige’s strange behavior, such as refusing to take a call from his mother in her presence, arouses Yukako’s suspicions, but instead of hurling accusations of infidelity, she collapses in a pool of tears and anguish in the aforementioned passageway. Noboru (Kosuke Takaki), a handsome but naive colleague, happens upon her and they end up confessing their troubled relationships to each other.
Noboru, we have previously learned, is in love with the cute, callous Saeko (Momoko Maekawa), who blithely tells him she is head over heels with Shige and regards Noboru as just a friend.
Logically, Yukako should break up with Shige, the two-timing rat, and hook up with Noboru, whose purity of heart equals her own, while Shige and Saeko, both egoists to the core, are meant for each other. But in romance, logic often takes second place, when it is not absent altogether, as we see in an extended scene of all four principals in the same room, telling each other barefaced lies and unpleasant truths in alternation.
Instead of a final spilling of the beans and a righting of wrongs, the story takes a sudden turn that drains the tension that had been building for the past hour. In other words, the expected catharsis goes missing. But the conclusion also has a rightness, given the personalities of the characters and their baseline feelings for each other.
Those expecting a well-made relationship drama, even of the improvisatory sort , will find “Love Addiction” disappointing. But the film’s experimental method, with its moments of brilliance and long minutes of irritating back-and-forth, mimics the reality of its subject. More often than an addiction, love is a mess — but it’s all we’ve got.