Film / Reviews

'Just Only Love': Looking for romance in all the wrong places

by James Hadfield

Contributing Writer

If you believe everything you read in the news, Japanese romance movies should really belong in the science fiction category. Just last week, a new study estimated that a quarter of people aged 18 to 39 in Japan had never had heterosexual intercourse, feeding the popular stereotype of a listless generation, allergic to sex and relationships.

Yet not enough films seem willing to acknowledge how frustrating modern love can be.

Contrary to the tropes of seishun eiga (coming-of-age films), most people in Japan aren’t getting pinned against walls by their admirers — a lot of them aren’t getting any, period.

Just Only Love (Ai ga Nanda)
Rating
Run Time 123 mins.
Language JAPANESE

For Teruko (Yukino Kishii), the heroine of “Just Only Love,” the problem isn’t so much finding a partner as keeping him. After months of pining after Mamoru (Ryo Narita), a magazine designer with shaggy hair and permanent one-day stubble, she finally ends up in bed with him. But while she starts mapping out their future life together — and is even willing to give up her office job to spend more time with her man — it isn’t even clear if they’re actually dating.

“Definitions of ‘friends’ are quite vague,” Mamoru observes when they first meet, as out-of-place guests at a wedding party. If forced to apply a definition to Teruko, he would probably go for “friend with benefits.” Drunken dates and trips to the zoo are fine, but when she starts tidying his apartment and giving his sock drawer the Marie Kondo treatment, his halfhearted affections turn frostier.

Their ambiguous relationship is mirrored by Teruko’s pal Yoko (Mai Fukagawa), who’s happy to string along — and sometimes share a bed with — her own devotee, Nakahara (Ryuya Wakaba), without ever committing to anything more serious. And when Mamoru later hooks up with a free-spirited older woman, Sumire (Noriko Eguchi), he gets a taste of unrequited love himself.

Director Rikiya Imaizumi has spent much of his career probing the affairs of the heart, albeit with a lightness of touch that can border on being twee. Adapted from a novel by the prolific author Mitsuyo Kakuta, “Just Only Love” is one of his more straightforward efforts to date. It’s an honest depiction of the vague boundaries of 20-something romance, and takes the time to show its unequal relationships from both sides.

Your mileage is likely to vary depending on whether you find Teruko sympathetic or an insufferable drip; as for Mamoru, even she admits that he isn’t worth the effort. The others aren’t much better, and when Sumire drunkenly reprimands them for putting up with such unfulfilling relationships, her exasperation might match the audience’s.

The characters finally air their true feelings during a succession of two-hander scenes toward the end of the film, which tend to drag. Yet for all the earnestness of these exchanges, it’s often left to the support players to supply the real pathos.

Mariko Tsutsui has a beautiful scene as Yoko’s mother, reminiscing sadly with Teruko and Nakahara after her daughter stands them up on New Year’s Eve, and hitting deep notes that the rest of the film struggles to reach. Reiko Kataoka also makes a memorable cameo, and Eguchi is on scene-stealing form throughout. As with Imaizumi’s earlier “Their Distance,” it would be easier to care about his young almost-lovers if the old folks weren’t so much more interesting.