“Love Life” – A perplexing question [MOVIE REVIEW]

Kento Nagayama as Jiro, Tetta Shimada as Keita and Fumino Kimura as Taeko. Photo courtesy of Oscilloscope.

“Love Life” can be interpreted both as a command and a noun. Artfully, Koji Fukada, the director and writer of this sensitive film, poses many questions and answers none. A melancholic treatise on life and love, Fukada gives us a portrait of a people wrestling with the very idea of family.

In love and newly married, Taeko and Jiro have been raising Taeko’s son, Keita, from a previous marriage. He is a joyful child, full of curiosity and an Othello champion (a strategy game played out in black and white discs). It is his birthday and a celebration is planned. But all is not well. Jiro, a loving father figure, will not adopt Keita until his father, Makoto, accepts his marriage; however, marriage to a divorced woman is beyond what he can accept and his disdain extends to Keita. Makoto lives his life in black and white, without any shades of gray. That Taeko was abandoned mitigates nothing for him.

Misuzu Kanno as Akie, Tomorô Taguchi as Makoto, Kento Nagayama as Jiro and Fumino Kimura as Taeko. Photo courtesy of Oscilloscope.

The birthday party in Jiro and Taeko’s small apartment exacerbates the already tension-filled atmosphere between them and his parents, although Jiro’s kind mother, Akie, is clearly the intermediary trying for conciliation. Keita, absorbed in his own world, is happy to have presents and a cake. He has an inseparable bond with his mother and clearly likes Jiro. Unaware of the uneasy atmosphere, he plays with his new toy, distracted by the dangers lurking in the bathroom where he slips, hits his head on the edge of the bathtub and falls into the water that his mother forgot to drain. Truly a freak accident, it is only a short time later that his mother discovers him drowned in the tub. 

Regret and sorrow now fill the lives of Jiro and Taeko. Akie is consumed with the guilt of benign neglect toward Keita; it is unclear what her husband feels. Taeko’s sorrow is overwhelming and the bond between husband and wife is wearing thin. Taeko was always aware of the disdain her father-in-law felt but what does that matter when she has lost her most precious connection; the one person whose love grew exponentially when they had only each other. Her feeling of solitude, one enhanced by her father-in-law’s ever increasing remoteness, grows and separates her further from Jiro, lost in his sorrow, unable to communicate.

The proximity of Jiro’s parents, in an apartment just across the plaza, was meant to draw them closer but first, with his father’s all consuming disapproval and now, with the death of the son Jiro delayed in adopting, there is a chasm that can’t be breached. Proximity also brought Jiro and Taeko together, their offices sharing a plaza. Drawn irresistibly to Taeko, a compassionate social worker who supervises a food bank for the needy, they fell in love and married soon after. Disturbed by his father’s dislike of Taeko, a truly loving, giving person, he is torn by the parental loyalty dictated by culture and devotion to his new wife. His concession, one that he will always regret, was his refusal to adopt Keita until his father accepted his new family. Makoto expresses it loudly and often, he wants his own grandchildren and not those from a divorced woman. His attitude flies in the face of her compassion and openness. He and Akie put their apartment on the market and depart for the countryside.

Atom Sunada as Park, Fumino Kimura as Taeko and Kento Nagayama as Jiro. Photo courtesy of Oscilloscope.

After many years of absence, Park, Taeko’s ex-husband, shows up at the funeral. His mysterious reappearance complicates Jiro and Taeko’s lives immensely. Guilt-ridden about Keita’s death and brought face-to-face with her ex, now homeless and jobless, Taeko is torn. Did she try hard enough to locate him (she did); was the failure of her marriage somehow her fault (it was not)? Tearing further at the fabric of her marriage to Jiro, she reaches out to aid the seemingly helpless Park, a deaf man with no oral communication skills, whose national origin is Korean making him an even more unwanted outlier in Japan. His only connection is Taeko whose fluency in sign language makes her his liaison to the world of the hearing. At the expense of her marriage, she helps him find jobs and shelters him in her in-laws’ vacant apartment. Crossing the boundary between understanding and codependency, Taeko feels if she can remake his life, she might be able to forgive herself. Park’s emergence illustrates another void to be filled because, although Taeko was a good mother, a loving wife, an excellent social worker who buries herself in community service, she has successfully avoided meaning in her life that isn’t defined by her relationship to others. 

As Park insinuates himself more and more into her life, she and Jiro grow increasingly remote. Jiro doesn’t need her help and he is still tied to his parents; Park is helpless with only Taeko. As Jiro and Taeko become more distant, the tiny rips that were always present in a relationship where the unsaid dominated their communication become larger. Taeko, without Keita, longs to be needed. Jiro is self-sufficient; Park needs her. But sometimes need is illusory. The insertion of Park, subtly sly and more cognizant of his actions than anyone realizes, into Taeko’s and Jiro’s lives will either propel them to live their love or make it a love life that is no more. Life is not lived in the black and white of an Othello game, it is lived in the spaces inbetween.

The cast is excellent, led by Fumino Kimura as Taeko and Kento Nagayama as Jiro. Tetta Shimada is a joyful Keita and Jiro’s parents are played by Tomorô Taguchi (Makoto) and Misuzu Kanno (Akie). Atom Sunada, as Park, captures and catalyzes the film with the duplicity shining in his eyes even while his signing hands convey sincerity.

In Japanese with English subtitles.

Opening August 25 at the Laemmle Monica.


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