Film / Reviews

‘Love At Least’: There’s a shadow looming over this tale of romance

by Mark Schilling

Contributing Writer

Mental illness takes many forms, but depression is among the most baffling to family and friends, since the afflicted may be physically healthy and verbally coherent but barely stir from bed for weeks or months at a time.

But as Kosai Sekine shows with compassion and insight in his first feature, “Love At Least,” the depressed heroine, Yasuko (single-named Shuri), is anything but slothful, though she has been living with her tolerant boyfriend, Tsunagi (Masaki Suda), for nearly three years while sleeping most of the day and doing no housework, let alone paid work. Her only lifeline to normal society is the text messages she exchanges with her older sister.

Love At Least
Rating
Run Time 109 mins.
Language JAPANESE

Based on a novel by Yukiko Motoya, “Love At Least” gives us only glimpses of Yasuko’s past, including her drunken first encounter with Tsunagi at a konpa (group date).

It also offers only hints as to why Tsunagi has chosen not only this relationship, but also an editorial job at a tabloid magazine that he dutifully performs but obviously hates. Though outwardly tolerant, Tsunagi is just trying to avoid conflict — and rest up for his spiritually crushing labors. Yasuko, no idiot, knows this — and needles him for it. But she also longs for even a moment of real human understanding, not Tsunagi’s performance of it.

His former girlfriend, Ando (Riisa Naka), then suddenly shows up, eager to win him back. Perfectly coiffed and coldly calculating, she decides that Yasuko must first stand on her own two feet before she can walk out of the relationship, and helps get her a job at a cafe/bar run by an understanding couple (Tetsushi Tanaka and Naomi Nishida) she knows. Meanwhile, Tsunagi’s sole ally at the office is a sympathetic co-worker, Misato (Shizuka Ishibashi), who also has romantic designs on him.

This setup suggests a four-sided romantic roundelay, but Sekine, who also wrote the script, focuses instead on the drama of Yasuko’s shaky re-entry into society. In contrast to “My S.O. Has Depression” (2011) — Kiyoshi Sasabe’s heart-warming adaptation of a popular manga with a depressed hero — “Love At Least” offers no comforting advice nor uplifting arc of recovery. In fact, Yasuko is never properly diagnosed or treated. Though determined to shake herself awake (as indicated by the row of alarm clocks at the head of her futon ) and function at her job, she has only Tsunagi’s shrugging support and the conditional good will of her new bosses. It takes just one seemingly minor incident to set her reeling.

A distinctive, pixie-ish presence in such films as “Tokyo no Hi” (2015) and “Tremble All You Want” (2017), Shuri expresses Yasuko’s quicksilver changes in mental state, from the fragile to the ferocious, with a conviction that seems to come less from bookish study than a deep dive into the heart of depression itself, where enervation dwells with irritability, hopelessness with desperation. Spiritually and physically, she strips away everything, hope included.

As Tsunagi, Suda is veiled and passive, but burning, however slowly, with his own inner fires. Three women, we see, want to be with him for reasons beyond his sharp-eyed good looks. The revelation of his motivations unfolds in ways that have nothing to do with plot, everything to do with a love that sees, accepts and cares — at least, and at last.