Lowlife Love’s opening scene, in some sense, encapsulates its portrait of the (highly sexualised) challenges and sacrifices endemic to filmmaking and the idea of ‘getting ahead’: in the context of a morning after, a woman gets dressed while the man still sleeps; he wakes up, and when she has finished dressing, she gives him her CV and promptly leaves. After being caught masturbating by his younger sister, the man decides to officially begin his day: he stands up, nears a photo of filmmaker John Cassavetes hanging on a wall, puts his hands together, and prays to the cinema gods of whom Cassavetes is representative. The man is Aoki Tetsuo (Shibukawa Kiyohiko), thirty-nine, lives at home, frequently brings home aspiring actresses for sex romps, and is unemployed; or, later in the film, as he corrects his mother when she finds him in another ‘a morning after’ context (with two women this time) — and wakes him up wielding a knife and promising to kill him — he is not unemployed but a ‘film director.’ Indeed, Aoki holds the title of director in the film crew/collective named Cinema Club of which he is a part; and he holds that everyone in the crew addresses him with that title. How Cinema Club survives despite not making movies (yet) is through adult video productions helmed by member Mamoru (Hosoda Yoshihiko) and admission and membership fees. Over the course of three seasons — the film’s segments are bookmarked by ‘early summer,’ ‘summer,’ and ‘autumn’ — the film follows Aoki’s increasingly desperate, driven attempts to shoot a film based on the Club’s newest members, admitted early in the film: aspiring screenwriter Iori Ken (Oshinari Shugo) and aspiring actress Minami (Okano Maya), both rather ambitious but also pure in moral intent. Under writer-director Uchida Eiji’s blunt, almost clinical gaze, the film’s portrait of filmmaking is that of a mucky, contemptuous affair, with the title ultimately referring less to Aoki and more to the nearly absurd desire to make movies, like an ailment or addiction that one just cannot shake once one catches it.
How one lives with, or works through, this ailment or addiction is the film’s principal point of view, centered around Aoki’s Club. As such, a recurring refrain throughout the film, in several variations, is ‘Don’t be so naive.’ Characters thus experience rituals by fire, being forcibly stripped of their naïveté in the name of their ailment, addiction, ambition, or whatever one wants to call it. These rituals by fire, more often than not, are physical or sexual in nature.
Filmmaking is essentially equated with prostitution, not only for starlets like Minami and those at the ‘sewer’ level of the cinema chain, as Aoki’s pragmatic producer colleague Kida (Denden) puts it near the end of the film, but also for those who have presumably ‘made it’ or ‘sold out.’ Though at opposite ends of the successful filmmaking spectrum, Kano (Furutachi Kanji) — who becomes a crucial character in both Minami and Aoki’s respective rituals of physical/sexual de-naïveté-ing — and Aoki are no different when it comes to using their title as director to have sex with women; neither is Kida, for that matter. As a sordid, established policy of upward mobility within the industry, the likes of Kyoko (Uchida Chika) — one of the Club’s longtime actors — act accordingly. Kyoko is particularly pro-active in this regard; she takes home several older directors/producers to finagle an advantage, rejecting one because he has not made a film in years and indulging another because he is at least consistent in making semi-porn films, as a backup plan. At a certain point, the language itself becomes plainly economical in Kyoko’s conversations with these men. She asks Kida point blank, ‘Tell me, then, what will I gain from you?’ Upon meeting Kano, whose work she admires, a tipsy Minami frankly states, ‘Everybody in this industry is crafty, filthy, and bitter. Annoying as well.’ That such words come from Minami turns out to be especially poignant, as she becomes all of what she describes in the course of the film.
Minami and Iori are the newbies in the Club and in the industry in general, and therefore still possess a moral compass. Not coincidentally, they encounter each other at the church where earlier Iori had accompanied Aoki and Mamoru to (naively) ask church members for funding for their film project. It is also where the two see each other again later in the film, with Minami at her most broken after experiencing one ritual by fire after another in the industry in order to realise her dreams. Mascara running and hair unkempt, Minami, however, says her goodbyes to Iori, as she is off to become an actress, which by this point sounds like a dirty word. Indeed, when Iori and Aoki next meet Minami, she is shooting on location for a TV drama and; while approachable, emotionally she is a fruit hollowed out, an empty cave.
Exacerbating the craftiness, filthiness, and bitterness that Minami experiences firsthand among film industry folks, before and after her success, is that one’s ailment/addiction/ambition is caught up with unrequited love or lust: Minami with Iori; Aoki with Minami; Mamoru with Aoki. Yet because of or despite experiencing their respective rituals by fire, everyone continues to plug away; some manage to transform their ailment into dreams realised, and some simply do not.