True crime cinema has always been an easy sell in Japan, with some titles becoming instant classics. Shohei Imamura’s “Vengeance is Mine” (“Fukushu Suru wa Ware ni Ari,” 1979) is acknowledged as the pioneer of that genre. Based on a real-life serial killer case from the 1960s, it combined flashy murder with explosive sex.

Ever since, though, directors have tended to go overboard with the true crime formula — does anyone remember “The Devil’s Path” (“Kyoaku,” 2013)? — and Kota Yoshida’s “Love Disease” (“Ai no Yamai”) is no exception.

The film is based on a 2002 murder case in Wakayama Prefecture that began with a dip into the world of online dating. “Love Disease” is brutal and crude, but nevertheless sports a streak of likable naivete. After all, this was back when the internet was still young and mobile phone dating was the hot new thing — I can definitely remember the days when texts from unknown “dates” showed up on my phone’s screen and, unfortunately for us women, the job offers from dating sites that flooded our inboxes.

Love Disease (Ai no Yamai)
Run Time 96 mins

The Wakayama case is said to have set the precedent for online dating scams leading to violence, and also to have inspired many a made-for-TV movie plot line. This is the first time, though, that the incident has been tackled outright.

Yoshida has teamed up with screenwriter Hitoshi Ishikawa to tell the story of single mother Emiko (Saori Seto) who is down on her luck and out of ideas. On a whim, she decides to work as a decoy for an online dating site with the understanding that all she has to do is sound sweet on the phone in order to rope in unsuspecting male clients. She soon learns she has a flair for the business and gets greedy for real money. She pegs one of her clients, factory worker Shinnosuke (Amane Okayama), as her personal cash cow and proceeds to bleed him dry.

To keep him on his toes, Emiko tells Shinnosuke that she’s the daughter of a yakuza boss and that he needs to pay a hefty “registration fee” plus a monthly stipend to keep the yakuza off their backs. Shinnosuke becomes her slave, convinced that Emiko will extricate herself from her family and marry him.

In the meantime, Emiko falls for construction worker Akira (Masayasu Yagi), who does to her what she’s doing to Shinnosuke. Emiko is too much in love to notice the irony of her situation, but gets insanely jealous when Akira tells her that he’s devoted to his physically challenged sister (Maho Yamada). “I’m going to kill that woman,” she blurts, before ordering Shinnosuke to do the deed.

Yoshida is adept at showing the grisly violence alternating with sad, unflattering sex scenes (a most effective combination) but seems far less interested in the psychology behind the Wakayama incident. His shallow depiction of Emiko doesn’t help: Seto does her best to make Emiko credible, but it’s hard to understand her motives and more difficult still to muster a shred of sympathy.

Okayama has more to work with as Shinnosuke, a sex slave Emiko refuses to discard. His performance is sensitive and fragile, forming a nice contrast with Emiko’s hard-as-nails type.

In the end, Shinnosuke is sacrificed on the altar of Japanese cinema’s most enduring archetype: the akujo (evil woman). That this kind of fantasy still exists may be the true crime here.

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