Film Review: Love/Juice (2000, Japan)
"Why were we born as two separate people, and not one?"
This is the seventh film in my short season of Asian Gay and Lesbian film reviews.
I was very lucky to actually be able to find this minor offbeat flick, made on an absolute shoestring budget by Shindo Kaze, a female Japanese director and screened in 2000.
Chinatsu and Kyoko are two close friends who live together and share pretty much everything, makeup, spoon and even their bed. They are so inseparable as to be almost a single entity. Yet they are neither a couple in the conventional sense, or in any other sense, since although Chinatsu is professedly gay, Kyoko is to all intents and purposes straight.
The two of them own very little and live frugal lives in a practically one roomed apartment as “freeters”, a Japanese term for those with no steady job or income and not particularly interested in getting one. What money they do manage to scrape together is used to fund their recreational drug using, nightclub centred livestyles.
The two of them invariably go out together, cruising the night scenes and looking for love, Kyoko for a man and Chinatsu for a girl. But something always stops either of them from finding the partner of their dreams: each other.
Chinatsu adores Kyoko and worships the very ground she walks on and while Kyoko is with her, she can find true love nowhere else. Moreover, as if to capture her spirit, she is constantly taking photos of Kyoko throughout the film.
Kyoko loves the attention and in a perverse sort of way, leads the vulnerable Chinatsu up the garden path.
But she is a victim of her own making because Chinatsu becomes the main reason why Kyoko herself, never seems to find love and settle down. When Kyoko starts to notice this, the atmosphere of the cozy household take a turn for the worse.
Despite this however, they are both trapped by their situation and their love for each other, because let’s face it, when it comes down to it, how many people can say that they have is a friend and companion closer than anyone else in the world who supports, understands, and who is there for you, right next to you, always.
Still, even a bond so close has its limits, and Chinatsu’s increasing frustration at her inability to find herself a girl to take her mind of the infuriatingly close, yet infinitely out of reach Kyoko, comes to a head when she is played by and subsequently dumped by a stylish nymphette at a party.
That night, feeling desperately sorry for Chinatsu, Kyoko gives in to her friend’s incessant demands and things begin to get even more complicated for the two of them.
As the film progresses, we learn things that suggests their love wasn’t as one sided as it first appeared.
First up were the expectations. As soon as the opening credits appeared I saw “Tsunku Town Productions” and sighed, expecting another Love My Life or worse. That’s because Tsunku is responsible for a lot of total and utter garbage which passes itself off as music under the umbrella project “Hello!” His most famous travesty of modern pop is called “Morning Musume” and was unleashed upon the unsuspecting world by THIS MAN. And for that sin, I pray he suffers tinnitus until the day he dies.
Those of you who know me well, will know my esteem for that steaming pig-swill of a girlie-pop unit. Those of you who don’t, just use the previous sentence as a starting point.
But they were my expectations, and over the next fifteen minutes, they were blown out of the water.
This gem of a film was clearly made on a shoestring budget, using small hand-held cameras and digital film, developed in a grainy, contrasty finish. The result is a surprisingly personal account of the two girls’ lives and hardly a Tsunku produced soft focus “Glavia” (Japanese slang for Glamour Video Idol) pop video. What I didn’t know was that Tsunku Town is a production company for aspiring Japanese film directors and has nothing to do with his other endeavours.
No flashy titillation here. No softly lit, pouting teenagers for middle-aged men’s delectation.
Oh, and you can forget insipid Hollywood vista sweeps and pans of the scintillating Tokyo harbour. This is a film by Japanese for Japanese and is not a cross cultural effort strewn with the explanatory cultural crutches required in Saving Faces and Red Doors.
Instead, you get close-up-and-personal with Tokyo’s vast selection of concrete: barren concrete backstreets, canal-side concrete embankments and graffiti strewn concrete tunnels and underpasses are the only backdrops to the characters’ antics.
And when you’re not outside you get seedy, darkened bars, depressingly cramped yet deserted local shops and the main characters’ cute but shabby little flat.
The two actresses, Okuno Mika (Kyoko) and Fujimoto Chika (Chinatsu) both put in commendable, touching performances. They are relatively inexperienced actresses, Fujimoto only appears in TV dramas and Okuno doesn’t even register on the Internet, except for this film!
This makes their efforts especially surprising and rewarding to a viewer who joins with no preconceptions: Their relationship is portrayed with both verve and mood and darts between frivolity and desperate with the incongruous but surreal grace that Asian films seem to have when dealing with wildly disparate moods.
And what a relationship! Sure, in straight terms, this is the standard one-sided unrequited love situation, where A is in love with B, but B only likes A as a friend gig. But this twist on the old story is deliciously fresh and equally painful to watch.
Chinatsu is the glam-butch cynic who only has eyes for Kyoko, the doe-eyed (but pretty much straight) wonderstruck child. Kyoko is the opposite and sees the beauty in everything, including Chinatsu, which is really the reason why the relationship becomes so interesting.
They also turn another concept on its head. One would expect butch Chinatsu to lead the relationship. But in reality, she’s begging Kyoko for comfort and it Kyoko who’s in emotional control. Kyoko is the adorable but capricious object of desire who gets a high from all the attention, from being loved and then flaunts her straightness and her men in Chinatsu’s face as if to hurt her.
Kyoko is undeniably flirting with Chinatsu just as girls often do with guys they have no real interest in and Chinatsu lives her days and nights locked in frustration.
The way the film follows their relationship is involving and personal. The low budget plays to the story’s advantage and the handheld cameras, especially, lend the film an almost documentary-like appearance at times.
The relationship was so novel and refreshing that I was practically hooked from the start. Chinatsu and Kyoko portray their characters so well, and they really do come across as the best of friends and more on screen.
Add to that the dashes of frivolity, drama, hurt, black humour with an ending with a sting in the tail and you have got a budget classic on your hands.
Overall, then, an unexpected gem. Rough and ready with a low budget and straight from the TV cast, it could easily have failed by glamming up the setting, puffing out the sexy bits and casting bigger actresses. But the acting was solid, the canvas was tangibly real ( I know, I’ve been to that part of town) and the characters and their relationships were drawn by a skilled hand of a very high calibre.