Love and Other Cults (Japan, 2017)

Here is the weirdest thing happens in Eiji Uchida’s latest feature Love and Other Cults. Three teenage boys have called a telephone number that was scrawled onto a bathroom wall and are expecting a young woman to turn up to have sex with them. She does, as do several young gang members that proceed to fleece the teenagers of their money. It’s a snappy, fast-paced introduction, and one that establishes the seedy, scabrous tone of the film, and once it’s done the film immediately flashes back to introduce that gang of hoodlums and showcase how their lives got to the starting scene.

Except it never does. The viewer gets to see how these people came to meet one another and make a nuisance of themselves together, but Uchida never returns to that opening scene. It is difficult to see where that scene would slot into the narrative, either. It is a perplexing oversight, and one that typifies the somewhat muddy and haphazard way Love and Other Cults is plotted.

The film ostensibly follows Ai (Sairi Ito), a teenage girl who was abandoned by her mother as a child to become a key figure in a religious cult. When that cult is disbanded, and its charismatic leader arrested by the police, Ai starts to attend a regular high school. From there she bounces from one environment to another, always trying – and failing – to find a place to belong. Throughout her journey Ai is shadowed by the lovestruck Ryota (Kenta Suga), a high schooler whose understated and unrequited love for her never rocks or wavers. Together they find themselves running rampage on the streets with the aspiring yakuza Yuji (Kaito Yoshimura), and his more level-headed buddy Kenta (Antony).

While the story continues to follow Ai’s constant transformations in both environment and personality, it also follows the growing number of supporting characters that surround her, whether it is Yuji’s gradual discomfort within the criminal underworld or Ryota’s slow and reluctant shift away from Ai’s side. Most intriguing of all is a gentle, warm romance between Kenta and Reika (Hanae Kan), a young woman who does underwater photography for a living. That is, all things considered, a lot of plot to squeeze into 95 minutes; the result is in part why Love and Other Cults feels like such a frantic and haphazard kind of a story. There is strong dramatic and comedic material throughout, but it is broken into pieces and does not work anywhere near as well as a whole.

Sairi Ito shows off a magnetic presence as Ai, and a tremendous ability to keep her character likeable throughout. The film is as much a tragedy as a comedy and Ito balances those contrasting needs extremely well. Suga is convincing as the incessantly sullen Ryota; it is a part very familiar to these kinds of low-budget Japanese films about miserable adolescents but makes a solid contribution. Yoshimura essentially plays the opposite stereotype: the loud, brash and impulsive wannabe gangster. In the film’s first half, it feels like something of a lazy character, but as Yuji’s idealized world begins to fall down around the edges, a much more interesting and uncertain performance begins to emerge.

A real highlight is the odd romance between Kenta and Reika. Kenta presents a strong contrast to his fellow gang members – both in appearance and behavior – and provides a wonderful sort of level-headed control over their more excessive behavior. When he meets Reika, who is a completely normal and ordinary woman in almost every respect, he visibly struggles to adjust to such a mundane lifestyle. It is a tremendously sweet sub-plot, and one enhanced very much by Antony and Kan’s naturalistic performances.

As the film progresses, it does weaken to an extent. A growing reliance on the sex industry to provoke the audience falls remarkably flat, whereas one of the subplots is wrapped up in an odious fashion involving a deeply unnecessary and poorly considered sexual assault. Where the film works best is in the odd little moments of comedy, lifted by strong and distinctive characterization and generally excellent performances. The film is shot in a generally matter-of-fact style but is exceptionally well edited. With so much story squeezed into such a modest running time, it needs to be.

This is not the most arresting independent film to come out of Japan in recent years, but for the crowd that will recognize its style, it does provide plenty of entertainment value. It is at the strong end of the second-stringers.