Poverty and debt are two traditional reasons for becoming a porn actress. But as Takahisa Zeze’s new film “The Lowlife” nonjudgmentally shows, the women who work in Japan’s giant AV (adult video) industry today may also have other, more personal motivations, though they are still social outsiders.

Based on a 2016 novel by AV actress and “gravure idol” (pin-up girl) Mana Sakura, “The Lowlife” focuses on three women who enter or encounter the world of AV. Seeing it at this year’s Tokyo International Film Festival, where it screened in the Competition section, I found it a hard sit: Its heroines are relentlessly shamed, with little in the way of redemption or hope.

Zeze also delivers steamy bed scenes, many filmed on the sets of the film’s AV shoots, similar to those he once churned out as a prominent director in the now nearly extinct “pink” film genre, with release titles like “Extracurricular Activity: Rape!” (1989) and “Molester’s Train: Mischievous Wives” (1992). That is, he seems to be appealing to the guys who do their video rental shop browsing behind the “adults only” curtain (though in his defense, beyond the obligatory sex, Zeze’s “pink” output was more imaginative and boundary-pushing than the industry norm).

The Lowlife (Saitei.)
Run Time 120 mins
Opens NOV. 25

But on a second viewing, I not only had a better idea from the start about who was who — the quick cutting in the opening sequence from story to fragmentary story had been hard to follow — but also found the film less exploitative than clear-eyed about the actualities of the business, including the fates of its women.

One is Miho (Ayano Moriguchi), who is in her mid-30s and fed up with her husband’s reluctance to have children. Then she discovers his porn collection and, on an impulse, applies as an actress to an AV production company. When she is on her first shoot her father dies; familial turmoil follows.

Another is Ayano (Kokone Sasaki), a young woman who finds her vocation in AV acting, where her self-perceived “ugliness” matters less than her on-camera abilities. Then, as she is soaring to AV stardom, her mother (Makiko Watanabe) finds out about her job — and hurries to Tokyo to perform an unwelcome intervention.

Finally there is Ayako (Aina Yamada), a high school student living with her hardworking grandmother (Toshie Negishi) and her wayward mother (Saki Takaoka) in a seaside town. A talented, if socially awkward, artist, she is gaining recognition for her work when her classmates learn that her mom was once an AV actress.

The fallouts from these upsets and revelations verge on the melodramatic, with fits of high-decibel weeping and shouting. Also, the new age mysticism used to tie up plot points does not convince. But the film’s treatment of its central threesome is fundamentally sympathetic.

“The Lowlife” is also something of a shout-out to the AV industry. Its workers, from Miho’s strictly-business manager to Ayano’s veteran co-star, treat actresses with consideration and respect. Crude harassment is nowhere to be found.

A glossing over of the industry’s coercive underside? Perhaps, but this portrayal reflects a truth: These women are the reason the business exists. So, in this version of the story at least, they get smiles, compliments and fluffy white bathrobes, not invitations to watch the fat producer shower.

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