'Birds Without Names' ('Kanojo ga Sono Mei wo Shiranai Toritachi'): Film Review

Love is pain in this grim tale.

Yu Aoi appears in an award-winning role as a woman seeking physical intimacy to redeem a traumatic relationship.

"0% empathy, 100% discomfort" goes the Japanese marketing tagline for Birds Without Names. It's a strange but perfectly spot-on representation of the film’s dead-end existences and doomed love. In this downbeat affair, director Kazuya Shiraishi marches onward in a career that has focused on dodgy sex deals (Lost Paradise in Tokyo), death row inmates (The Devil's Path), corrupted cops (Twisted Justice) and struggling prostitutes (the reboot of the pink classic Dawn of the Felines).

Adapted from a novel by Mahokaru Numata, a major player in the gloomy Japanese literary genre of iyamisu (or “eww mystery), Birds Without Names is littered with belligerent relationships, beautiful scoundrels and bad sex. What makes the film stand out from the crowd, however, is actress Yu Aoi's against-type performance. Ditching her long-running on-screen persona as Japan's national sweetheart, the 32-year-old star delivers a gripping turn as a callous, confused, thoroughly repulsive person trying to recover from a painful past through ever-more misguided trysts.

While it gets off to a promising start, the frisson and friction slowly disintegrate past the hour mark, as Shiraishi and screenwriter Taeko Asano raise the histrionics level while trying to resolve their protagonist's struggle with herself and the world. Though it has generated awards aplenty for Aoi in Japan, Birds Without Names has been flying very much below the radar since its premiere at Toronto last fall, clocking odd appearances at smaller festivals (Hawaii, San Diego Asian) and a few commercial releases outside Japan in Taiwan, Hong Kong and South Korea.

Aoi plays Towako, a young woman whose life has fallen apart. In the opening scene, she is shown whiling her time away in a messy, cramped apartment, indulging in junk food and trashy B-movies; she shouts at people on the phone, then goes out to hassle video rental clerks. But she reserves her worst behavior for her bumpkin boyfriend Jinji (Sadao Abe), whose grubby appearance belies an incredible heart of gold. Returning home after a day's hard work, he absorbs Towako’s abuse with a meek grin and shuffles off to cook, clean the house and satisfy her sexual desires, while ignoring his own.

Towako's bitterness stems from her attachment to a wonderful past when she enjoyed life with the handsome, loving but married Kurosaki (Yutaka Takenouchi, Shin Godzilla). In an attempt to revisit that excitement and pleasure of yore, she begins an affair with Mizushima (Tori Matsuzaka), a suave (and married) department store clerk who charms her with sweet talk, small gifts, and sensual lovemaking.

But her world caves in when a police officer comes by to ask questions about Kurosaki's disappearance. Plunged straight back into the past, Towako slowly gathers her memories of what happened back then — why she broke up with him eight years ago, and how she started seeing Jinji. Already disoriented by her recollections, she becomes more unhinged as Mizushima begins to reveal his true nature — a twist which leads the main characters to a bloody, deadly end.

Just like other entries based on the grisly Japanese eww mystery genre — among them Confessions, the 2010 suspense thriller about a teacher's ruthless revenge on the students who killed her daughter — Birds Without Names is best when it sets out to reveal the shady underbelly of humanity. Though something of an acquired taste, the ugly first half of the film is unpleasant but reasonably so. As Shiraishi ventures to explain Towako's trauma, however, the tension fizzles out, and the big reveal, when it comes, is unconvincing, maudlin and melodramatic.

Then again, this is perhaps all about Aoi, whose sturdy performance here should propel her out of comedies and into meatier dramatic roles. Traveling in the opposite direction, helmer Shiraishi could very well use this relationship drama to move towards more mainstream, commercial fare in the future. Even if Birds Without Names is finally underwhelming, it should be a useful stepping stone for its star and its director to take flight and move beyond pigeonholed careers

Production companies: Klock Worx
Cast: Yu Aoi, Sadao Abe, Tori Matsuzaka, Yutaka Takenouchi
Director: Kazuya Shiraishi
Screenwriter: Taeko Asano, based on a novel by Mahokaru Numata
Producers: Kazumi Fukase, Akihisa Yamamoto, Noriko Nishiguchi
Executive producers: Itaru Fujimoto
Director of photography: Takahiro Hashibara
Production designer: Riki Imamura
Costume designer: Sayaka Takahashi
Music: Takashi Omama
Editing: Hitomi Kato
Sales: Nikkatsu
In Japanese
113 minutes