Koji Fukada’s Poignant Portrait of Grief – The Hollywood Reporter

The apartment at the center of Love Life, Koji Fukada’s mellow study of grief and dislocation, is, like the film, compact and practical. A long table, surrounded by a narrow bench and various chairs, occupies the center of the living room. The kitchen is tucked in a corner. Near the entrance: a bathroom with a short tub, a sink, a toilet. Toward the rear: sliding doors leading to a balcony overlooking a hideous concrete lot; a bedroom on the right. Evidence of family life is everywhere: height marks etched into a wall, trophies, diplomas, a child’s drawings, books, clothes on hooks, shoes in corner.     

Taeko (Fumino Kimura), Jiro (Kento Nagayama) and their 6-year-old son, Keita (Tetta Shimada), live in this unfussy space, and how they interact with it is one of the most edifying aspects of Fukada’s latest feature. With Love Life, the Japanese director stretches the bounds of themes he probed in earlier films like the comical Hospitalité and the threatening drama Harmonium. Isolation, emotional distance and (mis)communication are all on display in Love Life, though these subjects are approached with a disorienting but welcome lightness, underlining the absurdity of family life.

Love Life

The Bottom Line

A beautifully wrought story of life after tragedy.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition)
Cast: Fumino Kimura, Kento Nagayama, Tetta Shimada, Atom Sunada, Hirona Yamazaki, Misuzu Kanno, Tomorowo Taguchi
Director-screenwriter: Koji Fukada

2 hours 3 minutes

Love Life is inspired by Japanese jazz and pop vocalist Akiko Yano’s song of the same name. According to press notes, Fukada heard the song when he was 20 years old and had been thinking about how to construct a filmic translation. The 1993 song deals in grand proclamations — “Whatever the distance between us, nothing can stop me loving you,” she croons at one point. Fukada’s film tests that sentiment and explores it beyond romantic love, applying the promise to relationships between current lovers, former lovers and mothers and their children.

At the start of the film, Taeko, Jiro and Keita are preparing for a celebration — a fête for Keita winning an Othello board game, which is actually a surprise birthday party for Jiro’s father, Makoto (Tomorowo Taguchi). Fukada establishes the jagged family dynamic carefully: In one scene, Taeko watches Jiro attempt to organize his colleagues into holding up balloons and signs spelling out “Congratulations”; her gaze is void of affection. In another, Jiro, stationed at a stove while Taeko and Keita giggle over a game of Othello, complains that the boy never wants to play with him. Taeko, through sign language, encourages Keita to play with his father. Keita laughs and signs that Jiro is rubbish.

A shared language between mother and son sets them apart from Jiro, who communicates in curt “mhms.” When we meet the latter’s parents, the dividing lines become clearer. Makoto and Akie (Misuzu Kanno) struggle to accept Taeko because Keita is her son from a previous marriage. Although Akie tries to maintain peace as comic relief, Makoto’s off-hand jabs escalate into a tense exchange with his daughter-in-law.

When Keita dies — he slips and falls into the bathtub still filled with water — the fissures in the relationship calcify. Fukada portrays the child’s death abruptly, a reflection of how tragedy can so suddenly interrupt life.

Grief reveals the truths of this family as each member processes Keita’s death differently: Makoto and Akie decide to move to the countryside, making good on an early promise to themselves. No longer tethered to their apartment across the courtyard from Taeko and Jiro, they continue their lives with little fanfare. Jiro straddles the line between his parents’ subdued reaction and Taeko’s overwhelming sadness: Having been married to Taeko for one year, he only knew Keita for a relatively brief — albeit intense — period. Nagayama finely captures the vocabulary of Jiro’s heart: the responsibility he feels to Taeko, the cowardice that prevents him from telling her the truth about his last relationship with Yamazaki (Hirona Yamazaki), whom he cheated on with Taeko, and the anxiety and self-loathing that curdles his communication.

Unlike Jiro, Taeko is distraught, made anchorless by the loss of her child. Fukada elegantly stages the growing distance between the two, signaling the percolating chilliness through domestic routines. In one particularly striking scene, Jiro, who is selecting photos of Keita for the funeral, asks Taeko to join him. She initially sits next to him, but when he asks for older photos of Keita, ones not from the past year, she moves to the opposite side of the long dining table before sifting through her archive. The apartment is bathed in a warm, saturated golden light, but the intimacy of that moment is cold, gray and dead.

At Keita’s funeral, Taeko’s ex-husband, Park (Atom Sunada), a deaf Korean national living in Japan, materializes. After leaving Taeko and Keita with no explanation years ago, the shattered father reemerges and slaps his ex-wife across the face. It is a jarring moment, and the first time Taeko, who lets out a shrill sob, shows any emotion. An oddly shaped love triangle forms after Park reenters Taeko’s life. There is no physical intimacy to the relationship between ex-husband and wife, but their emotional closeness, heightened by the death of their son, and Park’s abrupt decision to apply for welfare benefits at the office where Jiro and Taeko work, entangles their lives. Jiro, chasing a mirage of morality, encourages Taeko to help Park.

And she does. But it becomes clear, quickly, that Park is Taeko’s coping mechanism, a vessel into which she can pour her grief and guilt. She lets Park stay in Jiro’s parents’ old apartment and insists — to him, herself and others — that her ex-husband, who is also homeless, needs her. The desperation to be helpful, to throw herself into Park’s life, blurs Taeko’s vision, preventing her from realizing her ex-husband’s selfishness.

For the most part, Fukada maintains a steady hold on the story, allowing the relationships between Park, Taeko and Jiro to unfold at a naturalistic and unencumbered pace. It helps that the three central performers — Kimura, Nagayama and Sunada — seem settled into their characters; there’s no stiffness in their portrayals. Humor — jokes sharply deadpanned by the cast, borderline absurd predicaments — also keeps the film afloat, preventing it from being dragged down by sentimentality.

But there are moments when Love Life’s plotting feels too brusque and obvious, when Fukada relies on convenient, sometimes kitschy short cuts to transition us from one major moment to the next. And while perhaps these are intended as reflections of life’s randomness, they work against Love Life, interrupting the otherwise enthralling spell that Fukada has cast.

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