Kana Yamada adapts her play into an oft-illuminating melodrama about the lives of call girls in modern Japan.
This review is part of our coverage of the 2020 Fantasia International Film Festival.
Technically, prostitution has been illegal in Japan since 1956. However, a measure of sex work does exist somewhere in the margins of legal and illegal work, from ‘call girls’ to a variety of non-intercourse-related activities (see: Japanese ‘maid cafes’, where you can pay beaucoup bucks just to have a pretty woman in a maid outfit hold your hand while you play video games). It’s a cold, unforgiving environment, but one where women try to find glimmers of dignity and pride. Playwright Kana Yamada adapts her own stage play Life: Untitled to the screen for her directorial film debut. The results are a probing, if histrionic, look at the precariousness of Japanese sex work.
“If you ask me, my life ain’t worth shit,” explains Kanou (Sairi Itoh, Asako I & II), standing on an open highway wearing only a bra. She’s just fled from an overly aggressive customer on her first day on the job, and she’s decided she’s not going to be at the bottom of the totem pole anymore. So for the rest of Yamada’s film, she adapts to a more behind-the-scenes role. Instead of doing the work herself, she supports the six or so young women we see in the cramped two-bedroom apartment that serves as home base for our cadre of call girls.
It’s a move that belies the story’s origins as a stage play, the cramped setting allowing characters to wander in and out for brief glimpses into their psyche. We also get glimpses into their dynamic not just with each other, but with the three men who administrate the girls and act as mediators and muscle. It’s a precarious network of competing egos, performative deference, and careful avoidance. Characters either want to run the show or just survive the day.
Crucially, Yamada shows the audience none of the sex work itself during Life: Untitled‘s long day. Yamada’s interest, both in play and film, is to see these sex workers existing in the moments between jobs. They live out their curious limbo in a surprisingly mundane fashion. Yamada shows them studying for tests, discussing their next job, worrying about sick family members. But for the implicit threat of violence from their pimp/handler, it could be any other breakroom in any other office.
While some of the characters struggle to stand out, a few personalities quickly move to the forefront. Before We Vanish‘s Yuri Tsunematsu is positively mesmerizing as Mahiru, whose bubbly exterior belies a strange sociopathy. (“If you like, I’ll burn Tokyo for you,” she giggles to her sister during a quick visit). On the surface, Mahiru’s a one-note character. But her strange facade reveals multitudes about the kind of person you must become to survive this kind of work.
And of course, there’s Kanou, who decided the physical aspect of sex work wasn’t for her but leans into her support role. She’s a sounding board and advocate for these girls in equal measure. While she takes a backseat for much of the narrative, a late-film moment when she stands up for them is downright powerful. Part of the thrill of Yamada’s elegant screenplay and sparse direction is the way she allows her characters to fill in important textures to their world and personality, even in the background. Itoh is one of the most successful recipients of that restraint.
At the same time, Life: Untitled suffers from an overwhelming sense of the histrionic; sometimes, Yamada gets too wrapped up in the melodrama of it all. Characters scream at each other in vans, in the apartment, and nearly light places on fire. Sometimes it works — as with Itoh and Tsunematsu’s respective outbursts. But when Aimi Satsukawa’s Satsuko tries to join in near the film’s climax, it just feels like Yamada’s forcing the tension. Life: Untitled works best when it’s pulling back and showcasing the overlooked humanity of its subjects, less so when it wants to be a J-drama.
Still, despite these faults, Life: Untitled still captures the ineffable tragedy that comes from the environment of Japanese sex work. It’s got a nihilistic streak that Yamada overplays a bit too much; characters say things like “everyone here is a failure of society”. And yet, like with Kanou, Yamada offers the characters a chance to define themselves within their precarious profession. It’s in those upended expectations that you can find Life: Untitled‘s complexities.