July 21, 2008

Love My Life

If I told you that Love My Life was about two attractive, middle-class, college-attending lesbians, you could probably fill in the rest from the title alone. "Self-discovery" and "owning your life" and "being yourself" and all that. And you'd be pretty much right.

What makes Love My Life such a pleasant experience (I give it demerits only for too much hand-held camera) is that it meets these stereotypical expectations in such a restrained manner. No operatic conflicts, no manipulative psychodrama. The world isn't against anybody, except in the same way it's against everybody. Hardly a strawman in sight (and once sighted, they quickly exit stage left).

The "big reveal" that typically haunts the genre is dispensed with in the first ten minutes. When Ichiko introduces her girlfriend Eri to her father, he informs her in turn that he is gay. And so was her mother (now deceased). Her mother wanted a child and the onus of social conformity being what it was (and still largely is), this was the easiest solution for all parties.

Eri doesn't bother coming out to her cold, conservative father, as she has enough problems just relating to him as a woman not interested in conforming to traditional gender roles. So Love My Life isn't a by-the-numbers family melodrama. No raising banners and crying revolution. No weepy realizations. And her father isn't ever going to change either.

Eri and Ichiko are just as circumspect with their peers. Conventional social norms in Japan are not as threatened as breathless reports in the popular media might suggest. A recent survey conducted on NHK's Cool Japan program, for example, found that the overwhelming majority of teens favored preserving the hierarchal language reflected by senpai-kouhai (senior-junior) relationships.

So the first half of the movie is mostly an exploration of Ichiko's tight circle of friends, meeting her mother's past lover, a comedic subplot about a girl who has a crush on one of Ichiko's gay friends and thinks Ichiko is his girlfriend. And several scenes between Ichiko and an amazingly tall girl with a Mohawk that together make a little short story by themselves.

Things between Ichiko and Eri reach a crisis point when Eri breaks off the relationship in response to her father's ultimatum—that he sees no need to support a woman trying to get into law school. If she doesn't get accepted on the first try (the equivalent of the LSAT in Japan can be taken retaken on an annual basis), he'll cut her off.

It is at this point that Ichiko realizes she has defined most of her adult life in terms of being Eri's girlfriend. Sensing as well that his daughter has fallen into a wallowing funk, her father encourages her to try her hand at translation. When she finishes, he evaluates the manuscript and observes that she has promise, but needs to work at her craft.

So he introduces her to his editor, who is looking for somebody to evaluate English-language books being considered for publication (essentially write book proposals). What follows is a nice montage about the back-and-forth process of getting a manuscript right. (It brought to mind memories of working with Richard Romney and Larry Hiller at The New Era.)

In the meantime, her father also tells Ichiko, she ought not get too hung about Eri doing what seems to be the right thing for the wrong reason (to prove herself to her father). Sometimes what matters is being motivated to get off one's butt and do something, to start creating—for whatever reason—and let the profound reasons come later.

It's an odd juxtaposition, but Love My Life struck me as the lesbian, twenty-something version of Whisper of the Heart. In the latter, teenager Shizuku finds the discipline to become a writer from her boyfriend's dedication to his own goals. Like Ichiko's father, Nishi-san encourages Shizuku while making it clear she's not going to hit the ball out of the park the first time at bat.

As things turn out, Eri's the one who (perhaps unrealistically, though these things do happen) ends up hitting the home run. But as this all takes place off-stage, I don't take it as an obviation of the above point. In any case, the long denouement delivers an unrelentingly happy ending. And yes, this meal comes with dessert (if you don't know what I mean, add a few winks and nudges to that).

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