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Love’s Whirlpool

June 7, 2014

The most stylish 18 rated film of the year

Ai no uzu (2014)

One room. Four men. Four Women.

Daisuke Miura is one of the most interesting Japanese filmmakers right now. Miura earned his fame with uncompromising, largely improvised theatre plays that have been described “live documentaries” and which drove some of the performers on the verge of nervous breakdown. Somewhat surprisingly against this background, Miura’s cinema breakthrough was the romantic comedy Boys on the Run (2010). The manga adaptation was a mainstream production, but nevertheless full of punk, sex and otaku mentality.

Now Miura is back to his own material. Love’s Whirlpool is based on his own theatre play about a group of strangers who gather together in luxury apartment in Tokyo to have sex. The film hit the theatres with the relatively rare R18+ rating, and it was well know long before its release that the cast would spend only 18 minutes of the film’s running time fully clothed.

Sex, however, is more of a psychological than physical theme in Love’s Whirlpool. The attendees get together to have sex without the need for the usual social interaction and dating routines. Yet, once their host leaves them alone the first reaction is a long uncomfortable silence. Sex only comes in a good bit later. Then, it doesn’t take long until anonymity, pretending, and true feelings begin to mix the psyche in unexpected ways.

It takes remarkable skill to handle such a minimal premise that essentially takes place in one room. Thankfully the execution is excellent. The superbly stylish introduction alone sets the expectations high. The technical execution is top notch from framing to lighting. The visuals are nevertheless secondary to Miura’s interesting and darkly humoristic study on emotions, group behaviour, and sex.

Miura has created quite a good selection of characters. The attendees include a businessman, an office lady, a factory worker, a kindergarten teacher, an unemployed man, a freelancer, a student and a regular customer. Although a few of them function primarily as tools for group dynamism, all of them are relatively believable and fleshed out characters. The actual storyline focuses on an unemployed man who develops a dangerously close relationship with another attendee.

Although the casting process was reportedly difficult due to the sexually explicit nature of the film, Miura hasn’t gone for the second grade adult video stars but instead talented and fearless actors such as Hirofumi Arai. The biggest surprise, however, is the rising young female star Mugi Kadowaki (Schoolgirl Complex, 2013), who defies the usual career path of young Japanese actresses by playing the film’s sexually most aggressive role – and does it pretty well despite slight overdoing.

Miura does several other things against expectations as well. In real life we usually get to know people through their public fronts, which include pretending, wearing suits, and hiding under makeup – and only learn about their real personalities much later, if ever. In Love’s Whirlpool Miura undresses all his characters before we know anything about them. We then learn to know a whole lot about them before we know what they are pretending in their normal lives. When Miura finally shows them fully clothed again in the film’s final act, the effect is very interesting.

It is somewhat surprising that the film’s biggest flaw is actually its occasional softening of characters. Miura doesn’t take the realism as far as would be expected, but instead builds a couple of slightly naïve and audience-pleasing drama structures.

Of course, a film with a cast as good looking as this wouldn’t quite match the reality in any case, although it’s actually not too much of a stretch. Commercial sex has become very mainstream and accepted in Japan, starting from sexy clubs that play an important part in Japanese after-work socializing even with the young and handsome. At the same time many youngsters choose not to engage in relationships but lead independent life instead. Keeping these issues in mind, Love’s Whirlpool doesn’t really stretch the believability too much. Miura also shows welcome mature attitude towards the topic by refraining from cheap moralizing.

Despite its small flaws, Love’s Whirlpool is easily the most interesting adult drama in a long time, and it also looks stylish as hell. Thankfully, it has become a major indie hit in Japan. After opening in a just a few theatres nationwide in March, it went to play in more than 60 theatres with some small theatres playing it 13 weeks non-stop. In Tokyo as well, it opened in only one theatre, but seven weeks later it was playing on five screens at the same time. Not bad for an 18 rated film.

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