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Kengo (Kento Hayashi) is a man in step with the times. He never leaves his apartment without a face mask and gloves. When he comes home, he scrubs his hands furiously with soap and gets busy with the disinfectant.

Granted, the protagonist of Kensaku Kakimoto’s “Parasite in Love” is wrestling with extreme germaphobia, rather than the now-familiar reality of life during a pandemic. He’s also working on a computer virus that will unleash global chaos on Christmas Eve — but in this day and age, who can blame him?

Kengo meets his match when he crosses paths with Hijiri (Nana Komatsu), a high schooler who’s suffering from a debilitating case of scopophobia, the fear of being seen. She’s terrified of looking people in the eyes, and wears a chunky set of headphones to shut out the world.

Parasite in Love (Koi suru Kiseichu)
Rating
Run Time 100 mins.
Language Japanese
Opens Nov. 12

She also has a fascination with parasites, which is a subject she knows intimately: There’s one of them lodged in her brain, and her scientist grandfather (Ryo Ishibashi) has told her it will send her to an early grave, just like her late mother. Kengo turns out to be afflicted with the same condition, which is how he ends up getting hired to keep an eye on Hijiri while she bunks off school.

After some initial friction, the pair resolve to attempt to reintegrate into society, finding that it’s easier with a fellow sufferer by their side. But as they also start to develop feelings for one another, the question lingers: Are their emotions genuine, or is it just the parasites controlling their behavior?

This intriguing premise gets lost under the artful surfaces of Kakimoto’s film, adapted from a light novel by Sugaru Miaki. It’s the kind of self-consciously stylish genre fare that I’ve come to associate with Netflix’s original Japanese programming: attractive, a little bit edgy but low on substance.

Maybe the streaming giant passed on this because it had already picked up Takashi Shimizu’s “Homunculus,” another pulpy drama with a neuroscience bent. “Parasite in Love” doesn’t have the same noxious undertow that Shimizu’s film did, but it’s only marginally more enjoyable.

The movie is as polished as you’d expect from a director with a background in commercials and music videos, yet Kakimoto struggles to find the right tone. He can’t seem to decide if he’s making a moody techno-thriller or an oneiric sci-fi romance in the vein of Spike Jonze’s “Her,” and comes out with an awkward mishmash of the two.

The visuals, attractively shot by Kateb Habib, have been color graded so that even the daylight scenes seem to be enveloped in gloom. It’s a stifling aesthetic, and the occasional bursts of vivid imagery — waking dreams, CGI close-ups of the parasites — leave the rest of the movie looking drab and claustrophobic by comparison.

Even the soundtrack, featuring a very on-trend selection of Japanese artists, is deployed in such a haphazard fashion that it tends to distract more often than it enhances the atmosphere.

Although the film ends with a satisfying flourish, it gets bogged down during a dialogue-heavy final act, and Hayashi and Komatsu never quite overcome their obvious lack of chemistry. “Parasite in Love” resonates unexpectedly with this peculiar moment in time, but it doesn’t rise to the occasion.

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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