Love and Other Cults (Kemonomichi) (2017)


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My first Japanese Film Festival outing for this year, I stepped in to a multi-coloured tangled web of a tale about disaffected youth in rural Japan. Ai (a radiant Sairi Itô) is rejected by her mother and shipped off to a religious commune. Finding a sense of belonging there as Ananda, her peaceful world is upended when cult leader Levi (Matthew Chozick) is arrested.

Having to attend school for the first time, she meets fellow misfit Ryota (Kenta Suga) and they join a juvenile gang, led by natural leader Kenta (Anthony) and unstable Yuji (Kaito Yoshimura). Ai is seeking somewhere to belong, family to provide her stability and love. She finds it in many different places, some dangerous, all temporary. Ryota, the narrator, is seeking escape, like many rural teens in Japan. For him Tokyo represents a life where he can leave behind the boredom and limitations of his childhood.

As I learned in the Q&A after the film with Itô and director Eiji Uchida, being in a gang is a common way for teens to rebel against social and cultural confines. Once you turn 18 though, the consequences if you’re caught are substantial so many choose a safe future of study or work rather than become yakuza. We see this play out with the four central characters as each reach a point where they must choose their own path.

The story is a bit of a tangle. I struggled sometimes to orient myself in the narrative, particularly after an early flashback left me disoriented. The focus switches between Ai and Ryota and Kenta and Yuji, each a distinct and compelling character, and eventually the tangled threads knit into a cohesive tale.

Initially the style is goofy and comedic; the banter between the gang members is witty, Ai’s mother is a kooky, almost comical stereotype, the cult members are two-dimensional. The story darkens though, without ever completely losing its colourful stylistic brightness, and some scenes are hard to watch. The consequences for these young people are inevitable and none are left unscathed.

Have you seen this film? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

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