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If you’re in the mood for a pleasant love story, avoid “Birds Without Names” like the plague. On the other hand, if you’re cursing the idea of another Christmas alone, revel in the hope that all relationships may be as bad as the ones in this film.

“Birds Without Names” is one part murder mystery and several parts dysfunctional love story, and it’s based on Mahokaru Numata’s best-selling novel of the same name. Numata is currently the en vogue female writer of Japan’s book world, and her work often features manipulative men, brutal women and messy relationships. Another Numata vehicle about a female serial killer, “Yurigokoro,” is also currently in theaters.

When it comes to endless despair and virulent sexuality, however, “Birds Without Names” takes the cake. Directed by Kazuya Shiraishi, who has a solid reputation for depicting grit, crime and sex in films, this latest outing is based in the nether regions of Osaka. The characters all flaunt heavy Osaka accents that, for Kanto viewers, can sound provocative and menacing. The dialogue feels like part of the cast, taking on a life of its own as it snakes in and out of conversations or explodes with emotion.

Birds Without Names (Kanojo ga Sono Na o Shiranai Toritachi)
Rating
Run Time 123 mins
Language JAPANESE
Opens Oct. 28

Yu Aoi stars as the 33-year-old Towako Kitahara, a do-nothing woman subsisting on the earnings of her live-in-boyfriend, Jinji Sano (Sadao Abe). Jinji is a diminutive 48-year-old construction worker who keeps Towako fed and clothed while he himself is badly in need of a makeover and an etiquette lesson on how to use the toilet. Towako hates Jinji, but she needs him to survive. Her resentment manifests in a constant torrent of verbal abuse. Jinji is submissive and endures the humiliation to keep Towako, even tolerating the torch she still carries for ex-lover Shunichi Kurosaki (Yutaka Takenouchi, who is excellent in a despicable role).

Towako was horribly dumped by the tall, handsome Shunichi eight years prior — first, he sold her to his boss in return for business opportunities and then he beat her unconscious as a way of saying goodbye. But Towako is deluded enough to long for his caresses and gloss over the bad stuff; to her, Shunichi will always be the man of her dreams. This woman has a weakness for suave dudes, and when Jinji’s not around she sneaks off to love hotels with her current lover, Makoto Mizushima (Tori Matsuzaka), a married sleaze-bag in a designer suit.

All of this unfolds on the mean streets of Osaka, and though Shiraishi isn’t from that region, he has a gut-feel for the place that translates on screen as towering plumes of smoke rising from the factories, an incessant clanging of steel and metal from construction sites and a desperate pursuit of money and carnal satisfaction. The casual misogyny on display here is upsetting, especially since Towako is the one who enables her lovers’ bad behavior, even helping them to manipulate and sabotage other women in their lives. In the meantime, she never loosens her grip on Jinji or a seeming determination to keep him shamed and miserable.

Aoi is impressive as the poisonous Towako but it’s Abe who pulls the story along with his small frame and dog-like abjection. The content may be objectionable, but the performances are strong.

Could this be true romance? By the end of the film, the answer perversely feels like a yes.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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