Kana Yamada’s LIFE: UNTITLED begins with beautiful Kanō (Sairi Ito) staring us right in the face, as she tells us exactly how worthless her life is. This sort of stark bluntness is the foundation of every frame of LIFE: UNTITLED, which is adapted from the play of the same name, written and directed by Kana Yamada.

While LIFE: UNTITLED is based largely in a two bedroom converted apartment, which has become a home and office for an escort business. Kanō herself is a failed escort – having reneged on her first ever customer. She’s now working as an errand runner and office girl, which means she has a unique perspective on the drama and day to day life of the men and women who make their way through the doors. The other girls seem to fit every archetype you imagine when you think of female sex workers as portrayed in mainstream media – the jaded veteran ex-show pony who has lost her sparkle, the young new plaything, the geeky, quietly unexpected one, and so on. There’s a wealth of theatrical characters here, but their link to real life is flimsy at best.

Prostitution in Japan has had a massive turnaround in the last decade or so, as what was once prosecuted became legalized and nearly corporatized and sanitized. This is reflected in LIFE: UNTITLED in both literal and more esoteric ways – very little nudity or actual intimacy is shown, and the nudity we do see is from men. There’s very little dirty talk, and truly very little exploitation – something even films with much cleaner subject matter have a hard time grasping. However, there’s still layers of ancient dust to sweep away from this seemingly shiny new world. The main moral of the story seems to be the tired “hurt people hurt people” trope – that no woman chose this life, that they’re all suckered into it or forced by habits picked up via abuse or bad upbringings. While there’s merit to this way of thinking, until we can have a movie where women are allowed to choose sex work for no reason other than their enjoyment and financial gain, we are still working against a clock running backwards.

It is never easy to adapt a stage play to the screen, and given that Kano Yamada is a beginner director it’s a remarkable undertaking. Unfortunately, LIFE: UNTITLED feels very tied to its staged past – moving very rarely beyond the walls of the office. The dialogue is very traditional, centered around short, banter filled scenes and the occasional monologues. The pace is somewhat slow, metered, but crawls to an explosive ending.

LIFE: UNTITLED certainly does not have the aesthetic value of a first time director’s film. In a refreshing surprise, LIFE: UNTITLED has an intense directorial style, and art direction and frame composition that seems to have gravitas well beyond what you’d expect from a first time filmmaker. It doesn’t fall into the “traps” of a first time filmmaker in that sense – it is clean, concise, and beautiful to look at. Mindful choices, nothing extraneous or unnecessary, just good clean filmmaking. I applaud Yamada for not only boldly adapting her own work, but making something so remarkable out of it.

While the feminism of LIFE: UNTITLED might be lackluster to most American audiences, a little bit of respect for Japanese culture goes a long way in helping us to appreciate exactly how groundbreaking and special it is.

6/10 stars

LIFE: UNTITLED
RATING:UR
Runtime:1 hr 37Mins.
Directed By:
Kana Yamada
Written By:
Kana Yamada