The internal struggle one faces when confronted by grief manifests in many ways. Some collapse under the emotional weight of their dilemma. Others may push away the help of those who love them. Yet, ultimately, working through the emotional scars of a tragedy varies drastically for every person. While the saying “time heals all wounds” was meant as comfort, for many, that is little more than a false promise. Love Life from director Koji Fukada examines three people forever changed by a single moment. The harsh but honest bluntness that Fukada utilizes to tell his narratives leaves the audience grasping for a moment of emotional relief. Few films in 2023 will leave an imprint on you to this degree.
As they ready their apartment for Jiro’s parents to arrive, Takeo (Fumino Kimura) and Jiro (Kento Nagayama) prep for a party. Keita, Takeo’s son with ex-husband Park (Atom Sunada), plays in the house. However, during the celebrations, Takeo discovers something has gone wrong. The family soon finds themselves in a dark tunnel of sadness, which only becomes amplified when Park suddenly returns to Takeo’s life.
The raw power of Fukada will move audiences to tears. The simple ways he frames shots to maximize the emotional pull of a scene is stunning. Fukada has already proven himself a masterful storyteller in his previous works. Yet Love Life suggests he’s ready to take a leap into worldwide cinema. He continues to establish himself as an essential Japanese director.
Yet Fukada proves most effective in the nuances present within the relationships. Fukada seeds in concepts and ideas that feel hyperspecific to the couple examining their struggles. Yet, taking one step further back for each issue, the audience sees universal patterns emerge. Most importantly, these are not catch-all lessons learned in an “afterschool special” or “very special episode.” Instead, they stem from romantic longing, lust, and the characters themselves.
To help shepherd Fukada’s brilliant interpersonal conversations, Kumura and Kento carry a heavy load. Their performances are filled to the brim with emotional devastation. Yet both actors breathe a degree of hope into their performances. You can read it in their body language, in Kumura’s sign language, and in Kento’s facial expressions. While Kumura gets to be more open, she still displays incredible restraint. She might look ready to crack at any moment, but she takes every punch and note with incredible grace. Meanwhile, Kento begins to haunt the halls of his house. He may appear to be holding his emotions in check, but his disconnected nature hides how much his life has changed.
As each attempts to restrain their emotions, Fukada explores the subtle signs missed in a relationship that creates distance. Where distance exists, the actions of each person in the relationship begin to make less sense. Whether you read Love Life as a horror story about a relationship fraying, or a dramatic telling of a couple seeking to hold onto their last remaining vestige of happiness, Fukada will make sure the audience feels the emotional punishment.
Even the best films struggle to create believable emotional connections between their characters. Yet Love Life never wavers on that front. The ways that Fukada shades his characters with unique passions, internal debates, and nuanced motivation create one of the most humanist films of 2023. While aspects of the narrative are slightly too traditional to make Love Life excel on that front, the emotional punch stays with you long after the credits roll.