Film

A Dynamic Portrait of Sex Workers Channels Suppressed Rage to Cathartic Ends

Now streaming as part of JAPAN CUTS, Kana Yamada’s Life: Untitled features a wealth of skillfully written characters attuned to Japan’s contemporary social dysfunctions.

From Life: Untitled (2019), dir. Kana Yamada (© Directors Box; all images courtesy Japan Society)

Breaking the fourth wall, Kanō (Sairi Ito) fixes her straightforward gaze on us. “If you ask me, my life ain’t worth shit,” she says unapologetically, standing half-naked, with just a black bra and a skirt on. Life: Untitled, an adaptation of director and screenwriter Kana Yamada’s own play, works through the emotional constipation of a group of sex workers employed by an escort service, as well as that of the company’s office staff (of which Kanō is part).

The adult services industry in Japan is quite a peculiar one. Counting over 22,000 legal business, the country’s sex industry has transformed since the early 2000s when street solicitations were criminalized. Now mostly operating on an escort-based model that delivers sex workers to a private home or a hotel to offer deribari herusu (literally “delivery health”), these workers are stigmatized as much as they are deemed necessary to the well-being of society. Mostly enjoyed by men, these services are seen by many as a way of boosting productivity by encouraging sexual release. On the flip side, faced with a dearth of opportunities for equitable employment and pay, many of the cis-women in the field gravitated towards it in search of more lucrative work. Yet during the coronavirus pandemic that forced Tokyo residents into a temporary — although toothless — lockdown in April, the health and safety of sex workers seemed not to be a priority for Japan’s central government. While a massive stimulus package has since been launched, its eligibility rules were so restrictive and vague that many sex workers could hardly benefit.

From Life: Untitled (2019), dir. Kana Yamada (© Directors Box)

Mostly set in a miserable two-room apartment-turned-office in central Tokyo, Life: Untitled is an explosive chamber piece of psychological deterioration. After running away from her first encounter with a client, Kanō crosses out a career as a sex worker and instead joins the office as the handywoman. The only woman on an all-male office team, she acts as the film’s blunt narrator, providing a necessary counter perspective on the lives of the sex workers. Among them, there’s the whiny and cranky Atsuko (Aimi Satsukawa), the mature and professional Shiho (Reiko Kataoka), and the seemingly frivolous Mahiru (Yuri Tsunematsu, whose facial expression recalls Setsuko Hara’s composed and enigmatic smile from her iconic roles in Yasujirō Ozu’s films). This wealth of skillfully written characters marries Yamada’s flair for dialogue, producing tight sequences that thrum with a cogent theatrical tempo.

In Japanese cinema, sex works have been most famously framed by the films of Kenji Mizoguchi — whose socially charged and compassionate gaze is sometimes clouded by a voyeuristic urge to expose misery. Yet, in Life: Untitled sex workers are portrayed as more dynamic, with characters attuned to the country’s contemporary social dysfunctions. Sociopathic tendencies are masked with a cute, smiley demeanor while blossoming romantic relationships succumb to the trade’s badge of shame. Notably, Yamada is hardly interested in actual sex scenes; rather, she probes her characters’ most intimate conundrums. The emotional scars of these women are initially well concealed but the film’s tight rhythm leads decisively towards a much-needed catharsis. Reminiscent of Sion Sono’s uninhibited meta-drama Antiporno with its unconventional female vocality, Life: Untitled embraces this group of outcasts and gives them a stage upon which they can release their suppressed rage.

From Life: Untitled (2019), dir. Kana Yamada (© Directors Box)

Life: Untitled (2019), dir. Kana Yamada, is available to stream as part of Japan Society’s annual film festival JAPAN CUTS through July 30. 

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