I've clearly taken my time to revisit the older Ryuichi Hiroki films. Somehow I wasn't quite sure whether they would still hold up, having seen so many other Japanese dramas in between. Clearly I've been worrying about nothing. L'Amant is a film that properly illustrates his transition from pinku to drama director and watching it again, I was pleasantly surprised to find quite a bit of edge there that hadn't dulled over time. In fact, it's almost impossible to imagine a film like this could still be made today, and for that reason alone it deserves a little extra credit.
It's not uncommon for Japanese directors to start off their career directing pinku films. For most of them it's little more than a job, something that pays the bills while they learn the tricks of the trade. I assume it was a little different for Hiroki. Though he left the pinku scene behind, he never quite lost his hunger for taboo subjects. It's unique to see these subjects and themes carried over to more regular dramas, but that's where Hiroki draws his strength from. He handles them with the proper care and dignity, though that doesn't mean he holds back.
It's pretty interesting to think that the plot description would be a perfect fit for a pinku film, but then see it executed as a more straightforward drama. There's not even a single shot of frontal nudity here, still that doesn't necessarily make it an easier watch. Hiroki's style is pretty confrontational and if you don't care for films or narratives that tackle taboos head on, this certainly isn't the film for you. Even when the source material is a manga written by a woman, people still end up very triggered (as Hiroki's softer and more elegant Ride or Die proved only last year).
The plot revolves around a peculiar contract that binds three older men to Chikako, a young schoolgirl. The contract states that the girl agrees to being their exclusive sex toy for an entire year. She can't go out with other boys and has to comply with their every demand. In return, she gets a hefty amount of money and luxurious gifts. The girl's mother has no control over her, her deceased father left a hole in her life and the lecherous men are eager to exploit Chikako's nihilistic outlook on life. Other than that there isn't too much plot, instead, Hiroki focuses on the bonds that develop between these four characters.
Visually, it's very much a film of its time, which in this case is actually pretty nice. While technically not extremely accomplished, Hiroki has a great eye for compositions and the natural, elegant camera work manages to capture the essence of the characters. The lighting and use of color aren't quite up to standard, but considering the budget that's not too surprising. It's not a film that leaves a strong visual impression, but the cinematography goes very well with the atmosphere, and some shots do have the power to imprint themselves on your retina.
The soundtrack has very similar qualities. It's certainly not the most notable music and people familiar with Hiroki's films (or Japanese dramas in general) will have a good idea of what to expect. Soft pop and pleasant piano tunes create an agreeable atmosphere where characters are allowed to slowly develop. There isn't too much overbearing sentiment and the soundtrack reflects that perfectly. I tend to wish for soundtracks that are a tad more outspoken, here I feel it would actually be ill-fitting. It's up to Hiroki's usual standards in other words.
A film like this needs good actors to succeed, or at the very least a director who can draw the very best performances from his crew. L'Amant has both. Nozomi Ando is superb as Chikako and delivers a career-high performance, veterans like Ren Osugi, Jun Murakami and Tomorowo Taguchi are great as the relentless trio of men. With a cast like this a director doesn't have too much work, but Hiroki pushes them to really go all in. None of the characters is very pleasant, their behavior is deplorable, and yet these characters do manage to grow on you during the film.
The first third of the film is used to paint the stage, and it's no doubt the crudest and toughest part to get through. The events and characters are highly unrelatable and tough to decipher, but stick with them, and they do start to grow on you. Even when their motivations become clear you may not get a full understanding of their choices, but Hiroki does an excellent job of explaining how the contract helps each character to deal with and even overcome some of their issues and obstacles. It might be an uncomfortable reality for some, especially as this setup has mostly positive consequences for the foursome, but that's what makes this film so intriguing.
Ryuichi Hiroki is one of Japan's hidden treasures, and I'm certain there will come a time when his work is ready to be (re)discovered. L'Amant will be a pivotal film that helps to connect two very different periods in his career. The subject is taboo and Hiroki's approach is unflinching, yet the result is a subtle, nuanced and touching drama that well exceeded any expectations I had up front. It's not an easy film to recommend, some people will be troubled, even disgusted by the plot and themes, but it's nothing a responsible adult shouldn't be able to handle.