Tetsuo (Kiyohiko Shibukawa) wakes up beside a would-be starlet, vainly attempts to have sex with her again, and then, after she leaves, proceeds to masturbate to the CV that she has left with him. In Lowlife Love (Gesu no ai, 2016), the latest film from writer/director Eiji Uchida (Greatful Dead), there can be little doubt that Tetsuo is the ‘lowlife’ of the title – something which Tetsuo’s sister Akina (Nanami Kawakami) confirms when, in this opening scene, she walks in on him, expressly calling him ‘gesu’, the Japanese for ‘lowlife’.
Tetsuo is a priapic good-for-nothing writer/director, still lives at home (aged 39), mooching off everybody, ripping off the young wannabes who attend his film classes, taking sexual advantage of actresses on the promise of rôles that he will never give them, and forever riding on the back of his first indie film, the prize-winning The Sow, which he made over a decade ago – and whose success he has never repeated. Tetsuo is surrounded by other lowlifes, including his loyal assistant Mamoru (Yoshihiko Hosoda) who spends most of his time shooting POV porn, and the older, mob-connected producer Kida (Denden) who now mostly makes straight-to-video softcore and genre flicks. Through these characters, Uchida shows us the grim underside of Japan’s indie filmmaking scene, where money is always thin on the ground, everyone is exploited, and dreams are cynically abused.
So much for the lowlifes, but what of the title’s love? At first it seems to come in the form of newcomer actress Minami (Maya Okano) who, by spurning Tetsuo’s violent sexual advances, fires in him long extinguished romantic feelings – for his next movie. “I’m mad about you,” Tetsuo tells Minami, “as a woman and an actress” – and that division of desire captures the way that erotic relationships here are a metaphor for the collaborations and alliances involved in the filmmaking process itself. Much as actress Kyoko (Chika Uchida) calculatingly offers or withholds sex as a way of networking with her professional colleagues and negotiating future work, Tetsuo’s succession of one night stands reflects his loss of commitment to his craft.
On his bedroom wall, in place of a girly pin-up, Tetsuo has a poster of indie god John Cassavetes, which he regularly idolises – and as his newest Muse, what Minami reawakens in Tetsuo is less his amorous feelings towards women (feelings which he already has in surfeit) than his old passion for filmmaking. And where most romcoms follow the formula of meet-cute, followed by obstacles, and culminating in reconciliation, by the end of Lowlife Love Tetsuo will be on his knees before Minami not asking for her hand in marriage, but begging her to star in his next feature. For here, Tetsuo’s real love is for cinema, and as his more successful colleague Takumi Kano (Kanji Furutachi) puts it, “Filmmaking is like falling for a no good slut, huh?… But we can’t leave that slut alone, can we?”
The results, though at times a little broad, are a low-key, rough-cut metacinematic gem. And if Kida tells two actresses in a bar that filmmaking is all about “cause and effect” (while feeling both up from behind), his words will catch up with him and his friends unexpectedly in the final scene.
Lowlife Love released by Third Window Films on Dual-Format DVD/Bluray on 21 November, 2016
© Anton Bitel