The Modern Lovers (Japan, 2019) [OAFF 2020]

The dreams we forgo and the promises we break can define our lives as we grow older, a realization that the protagonist of Atsuro Shimoyashiro’s steamy indie drama gradually comes to when he reconnects with an old flame for one last tryst.

Tatsuo (Ryu Morioka) is a picture of compromise. Once an indie filmmaker in Tokyo with potential to make a mark, he lost his way and discarded a girl who was deeply in love with him. After getting another woman pregnant, he settled for stability over youthful ambition. Now, having reached the age of 30, finds himself far from the bright lights of Tokyo and in one of the most countryside places you can get in Japan: Gunma. There, he works a steady job, is married to a beautiful woman and has a child on the way. His life is comfortable but an air of dissatisfaction has arisen as he begins to see the uneventful future laid out before him. This is when his ex-girlfriend, Marina (Nanami Kawakami), drops him a message. He answers it and heads to Tokyo to meet her. He does not tell her that he is married while she is more interested in talking about their past. The two head to a seaside town where the passions he had lain aside are rekindled, upsetting his peaceful life.

Taking place over the course of a few days, The Modern Lovers features a convincing portrayal of soulmates who have reunited which gives the slight narrative a beating heart. There are many ideas about what love is but the concept of “the one” is pretty universal: that person who we feel the most connected to emotionally and the most comfortable with mentally and physically. What convinces most about the film is how the two characters are comfortable in each other’s presence, whether it’s the way their bodies gravitate towards each other as they walk around, hang out in bars and batting cages or during two full-on sex scenes.

Morioka and Kawakami share great on-screen chemistry complete with affection, humor and lust. In the sex scenes, Kawakami bravely bares all and performs moves straight out of a male fantasy, perhaps drawing on her background in AV. Some may think this excessive. She has also appeared in other indie movies and gives a fine textured performance which hints at hope and disappointment. Morioka has a less forgiving role, a genial character prone to acting in selfish ways which entails lying and taking advantage of others. The narrative asks us to feel sympathy by building up a sense of all he has lost and having Marina being a sort of dream girl helps in this regard. Surrounding him with people who have given up their dreams and youthful ambitions also helps to ease the audience into forgiving him his worst excesses.

At 81 minutes, this well-shot film breezes by as we spend time with these characters lost in the throes of lust and memories. The recurrent use of the song “Soto wa Samui kara” by Tokyo60WATTS on the soundtrack helps to draw the viewer into a lustful confection with a bitter aftertaste.

The Modern Lovers was shown at the Osaka Asian Film Festival on March 7.