Alcohol addiction and writers go together like cookies and cream, or so it seems. The combination of self-destructive artist and liquid fire has been the subject of films like The Lost Weekend (1945), Leaving Las Vegas (1995) and works based on the life and novels of Charles Bukowski. The need to blot out reality comes from many sources and The Path Leading to Love is a quietly powerful film that shows how alcohol blights the life of someone too filled with doubt, cowardice, weakness, and selfishness to overcome it for the sake of others.
The drunk is Shosuke (Ippei Tanaka). He could be a promising manga artist but he cannot even approach the foothills of creativity because his alcoholism pushes away his desire to work. It also pushed away his ex-girlfriend Sawako and threatens his relationship with his current partner, the loyal but lovelorn Yasuko.
His drinking is self-destructive. Three cans of Asahi is just the start. He usually cleans out the refrigerator and goes to a store for more. Why? It is possibly inherited from one of his parents but it is also an escape from a deeper question he has: whether love is real or not. Haunted by his failings with Sawako, he drifts along in life. However, when he gets a call from his sister in his home town that their mother is ill, Shosuke must face something of a reckoning as he is confronted with whether the questions and problems he has are all rooted in his selfishness which his alcoholism masks. Perhaps the potential absence of the ones who care for him will force him to walk a path leading to love…
This restrained and subtly told drama takes audiences into the toxic world alcoholism and the negative affects it has on the addict and those around him. The film features perfectly calibrated acting and exacting visual form to deliver a compelling story of lost potential and fraying relationships.
There is a minimalist style to proceedings in the sense that there are no big dramatics and no fancy visual or audio techniques. Director Kohei Takayama uses subdued but powerful lighting, set design, and precise camera movement to highlight the actors who give naturalistic performance. It all creates an emotionally potent tale of a sorry man ruining everything good in his life.
Shosuke’s drinking is a long-standing issue and his actions have had tragic consequences that he is well aware of, the extent of it becomes clearer as conversations, haunting dreams of a child, and hazy flashbacks gradually spill out on screen and give insight into what went wrong with Sawako, colouring the present-tense narrative, his relationship with Yasuko and his failing relationship with his family. The content of a poisonous atmosphere is delivered through fantastic form.
Set design and locations are resolutely normal, clean and pleasant, even, but the cans strewn around on tatami and desks show how much alcohol is being consumed. The camera mostly remains static as it observes people, but when it does move, it delivers a lot of visual information in terms of the changes in relationships between characters. The sharpest movement is a lateral tracking shot through Shosuke and Yasuko’s apartment space after he has had a massive binge-drinking session and they have argued. The disappointment and disillusion can be heard in her voice as the camera slides around the set, showing the shift in their relationship. The actors are separated by the architecture: a partition that divides the frame, acting like a huge physical barrier and representing an emotional barrier he puts up through his rejection of her love. The next sequence, their positions are switched but the partition remains and their sight lines are totally off, their body-language distant. There is no need for dialogue to messily tell us their emotions. The precise camera movement, when coupled with the actors and their body language, says so much.
Tanaka is perfect as Shosuke. A lassitude affects his lanky frame when he tries to work. Staccato-like rhythms take over as he gives in to drink. He is afflicted by woozy movements when drunk, finally hunched and with a face full of horror when sober and ashamed of himself and his inability to focus. Whenever Shosuke enters a group space at his family’s home, he isn’t a part of it, his head hung down. There are moments when he lifts his gaze, eyes shot through with guilt, and you almost believe his regret but there is always the craven man full of self-loathing lurking not too far beneath the surface. Full of contradictions, humiliations, he presents a sorry figure but still manages to hold the camera’s gaze. The other actors give equally fine performances by reacting to his void of decency, either trying to pull him back or reacting with fury and disappointment. Everything that develops between people feels natural. This is an everyday sort of tragedy.
To leaven this atmosphere are locations such as Shosuke’s hometown, a lush tropical paradise in comparison to his apartment somewhere in the winding streets of Tokyo. Beautiful beaches and blue skies offer a reprieve from the grey. The emotions shown by the women in Shosuke’s life also breathe with passion and love and it makes the man’s descent all the more a shame.
Downbeat but full of moments of beauty that alleviate the darkness, Kohei Tanaka has crafted a compelling portrait of an alcoholic which navigates the human wreckage created by addiction.
The Path Leading to Love received its world premiere at the Osaka Asian Film Festival on March 10. It will also be shown on March 15.