A convincing and well acted adaptation of the 2016 novel by Japanese AV star Mana Sakura, “The Lowlife” examines the daily lives of three women involved in the adult film business. Anchored firmly in the emotional struggles and family relationships of its fascinating characters, this gritty slice of documentary-like drama neither condemns nor condones the porn industry. Skillfully directed and co-written by Takahisa Zeze, a respected veteran of both Pinku (softcore) and mainstream movies, “The Lowlife” has the heart and honesty to become a commercial success. Its world premiere in competition at Tokyo should be just the first of many festival engagements.
By refusing to paint the porn biz in a negative light, the film — which bows locally on Nov. 25 — leaves itself open to criticism in some quarters. But as these stories unfold, it becomes clear that the film is not concerned with the rights and wrongs of pornography per se. Rather, it opts to focus on the humanity of the women who’ve chosen an unconventional line of work and are dealing with the good and bad that come with it.
Turning the four self-contained stories in Sakura’s book into a lengthy but never lead-footed screenplay, Zeze and co-writer Tomoko Ogawa present characters at different stages of involvement in the flesh-film business. Long retired from the industry is Takako (Saki Takaoka), a disillusioned and directionless single mother whose teenage daughter, Ayako (Aina Yamada), is a brilliant painter. Actively involved in pornography is Ayano (Kokone Sasaki), a hard-working professional — “I have a vagina of steel,” she boasts — who’s perfectly content with the life she leads and has just met nice guy Itaru (Ryu Morioka).
The most richly detailed character is Miho (Ayano Moriguchi), a 34-year-old childless housewife who’s stuck in a passionless rut with hubby Kenta (Yoichiro Saito) and knows deep in her heart they’re never going to start the family she so desperately wants. The next time viewers see Miho is at a nude photo audition for a porn production company. Her face and body language say it all both here and when she appears in her first film a few days later. Miho can scarcely believe what she’s doing but at the same time is absolutely certain it’s a step she wants to take at this moment in her life.
Inevitably, all three women face moments of truth when family members discover their secret. For Ayano, this means a screaming confrontation with her horrified mother, Izumi (Makiko Watanabe).
The ticking time bomb of Takako’s porn past detonates on daughter Ayako via social media postings during a school day. Showing that she truly has the soul of an artist, Ayako reacts with an inspiring mix of courage, sensitivity and pragmatism, which in turn allows Takako herself to grow emotionally. The truth also helps Miho come to a much better understanding of herself: In a riveting sequence of events, Miho deals first with the death of her father before deciding to confess all to Kenta.
Without ever suggesting that acting in the porn industry is the answer to anyone’s problems, “The Lowlife” says that women who choose this path are mothers, sisters, wives and daughters, and do not deserve the scorn that’s frequently heaped upon them. It’s a message that’s very well delivered by Zeze’s sensitive direction and uniformly fine performances from a clearly committed cast. Moriguchi is particularly impressive in her first feature film appearance since 2008. Yasuyuki Sasaki’s unobtrusive handheld camera, as well as moody piano pieces by composer Yo Irie, are part of a deliberately unfussy and highly effective technical package.