According to Eiren (Motion Picture Producers Association of Japan), 581 Japanese films were released domestically last year, many of which were low-budget productions shown in small numbers of theaters. Beneath these films “officially” recognized by Eiren is a substratum of straight-to-DVD fare. And at the very bottom is shot-in-an-afternoon porn that will never even see the inside of a Tsutaya rental store.

Eiji Uchida’s scabrous black comedy “Lowlife Love” (“Gesu no Ai”) explores the bottom layers of the industry, populated by rebels, failures, wannabes and gangsters, based on what Uchida, who also wrote the script, has seen and heard in his years in the business. Since its premiere in last year’s Tokyo International Film Festival, the film has stirred up controversy (some occasioned by a column I wrote for this newspaper) for digging where few had dug before and uncovering all sorts of bad behavior, much of which has to do with abusive or manipulative sex.

Some of the film’s treatment of women is frankly disturbing, but it also has the ring of truth, for all its comic exaggeration. When your shovel turns over dirt, you’re more likely to see worms than butterflies, no? The film’s director hero is also its premier “lowlife.” Having made one indie film years ago, Tetsuo (Kiyohiko Shibukawa) is struggling to get the second under way, while avoiding that dire fate — a real job.

Lowlife Love (Gesu no Ai)
Run Time 110 mins
Language Japanese
Opens Now showing

He also runs an acting school for deluded hopefuls to whom he promises roles in his next film, which looks about as likely to materialize as Godot. His real purpose, however, is to bed his female students or, failing that, sexually harass them. Tetsuo is contemptible in every way but one: He is a stubborn idealist about the movies.

So, when Minami (Maya Okano), an aspiring actress fresh from the boondocks, and Ken (Shugo Oshinari), a beginning scriptwriter, wander into his orbit, Tetsuo spots talent — and dares to dream big again. He becomes the “co-writer” (actually appropriator) of Ken’s script and casts Minami as his star, over the loud objections of Mamoru (Yoshihiko Hosoda), his loyal assistant, who believes Tetsuo’s long-suffering students ought to take precedence.

First, though, Tetsuo has to raise money. One source is Kida (Denden), a veteran producer who boasts about his old glory days as an industry agitator, but is shamelessly surviving on the exploitation fringes. Surprisingly, Kida sees the potential in Ken’s script and the dream starts to become real.

Enter the suave, smooth-talking Kano (Kanji Furutachi), a commercially successful director despised by Tetsuo for deserting the indie cause, but seen, rightly, by Minami as a step up. And she hates being pawed by Tetsuo in his private acting lessons (though they are effective in releasing a powerful rage). The exploiter suddenly finds himself abandoned, but he’s not about to give up.

And Minami? She gamely perseveres, while using sex to pry open the door to success. That is, she refuses to be used and discarded by the male powers-that-be. Instead, she turns the erotic game to her advantage.

The film is low-budget, with producer Adam Torel selling off his record collection to get it made, but unlike his struggling hero, Torel was able to secure an outstanding cast, starting with lead Shibukawa, a versatile actor who brilliantly brings out his inner slimeball. Also, Uchida may have based his script on anecdotes, but he keeps the story from becoming too episodic, while presenting uncomfortable truths in sharp, funny ways.

As cynical as it may seem, “Lowlife Love” offers a message of hope for all the would-be Academy Award winners out there: Dream big dreams — but watch your back. Your enemies might be gaining on you.

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