Life: Untitled (Japan, 2019) [JAPAN CUTS 2020]

A woman in her late 20s/early 30s stands half-naked in front of a passing train and begins to tell her life’s story. She talks fast, all in one breath, as though she’s worried someone might stop her before she has a chance to finish. Or maybe she’s worried that she’s always been the tortoise, and for just this one time she wants to be the hare. Because sometimes fables are wrong, and the hare wins the race.

That is the opening scene of Life: Untitled, writer/director Kana Yamada’s first feature adapted from her own stage-play about the lives of a group of sex workers in Tokyo. Through the deceptive lens of prostitution, Yamada’s film delivers a subtle and poignant examination of gender and class structures in Japan.

Life: Untitled follows the complicated lives of the people working for the “Crazy Bunny” escort service. After failing as a call girl because of her inability to have sex with clients, Kano (Sairi Ito) decides to take a managerial position at Crazy Bunny. Part of her duties are to keep down the drama within the agency’s HQ, though she’s not doing a very good job at it. Another girl, Kyoko (Kokoro Morita) is developing a relationship with one of the drivers, Ryota (Shunsuke Tanaka). Despite Ryota’s objections, she feels that they’re the only people who can understand each other. Another girl, Atsuko (Aimi Satsukawa) is fed up with the place and can’t seem to get along with anyone. Kano herself has developed feelings for another one of the agency’s drivers, though she can bring herself to admit it. Every character’s sanity is hangs by a thread, and it’s only a matter of time before tensions build up so high that they have no choice but to explode.

One thing that really stands out in Life: Untitled is how much the women’s actions in the film are controlled by men whose own lives are in disarray. Kano is both professionally and emotionally stunted by the men surrounding her. Kyoko becomes a victim of unreciprocated emotions towards Ryota, willing to do anything to win his affection. Another woman, Mahiru (Yuri Tsunematsu), is perhaps the only character with some degree of independence, though the deep psychological scarring due to the men in her past is all too evident in her actions. Mahiru’s sister has chosen to take a shot at happiness by living with the father of her child until, in her own words, “he gets bored and leaves them.” The film’s greatest irony lies in these men’s refusal to accept the fact that they are just as miserable and helpless as the women allegedly control. “Why else would they work there,” says Riyu (Tomoko Nozaki), the most popular call girl in the agency.

Another standout feature is the the film’s stage-play origin, which is too obvious in Yamada’s adaptation. The sets are limited, with most of the film taking place in the escort agency’s HQ. The plot advances almost entirely through dialogue, and on occasion, fierce shouting matches between the always-on-edge characters. Despite these limitations, Yamada’s script manages to endue her characters with such energy and dynamism that makes their dialogue shine. After a while, however, the repetitive patterns in both dialogue and setting become a little too distracting. Along the same lines, the ensemble cast, while interesting and diverse, is perhaps too large for a 98-minute film. Thanks to Yamada’s talented writing and the cast’s excellent performances, the characters are strong and well-defined right off the bat, but don’t have much room for their arcs to develop. That’s why the film’s ending seems more like an expiration than a resolution. Conflicts are not so much resolved as they are petered out to the point of exhaustion. In the end, the characters are left just as hopeless as they began.

Below the surface, Life: Untitled is not just a film about sex workers. It’s an empathetic statement on the downtrodden, a nod of recognition towards those who feel they’re the bottom of society’s barrel. The film’s structure and large cast is perhaps too ambitious for a single feature film, but it nevertheless makes for a rewarding and thought-provoking viewing experience. All in all, a great first feature in what looks to be a promising career.

Life: Untitled is streaming as part of JAPAN CUTS: Festival of New Japanese Film from July 17-30.