'Of Love & Law': Film Review | Filmart 2018
'Love Hotel' co-director Hikaru Toda delves into the absurdities of Japanese life that pit the individual against the nation in her first feature doc.
To many outside of Asia, Japan is a mysterious land of manga-obsessed fanboys, mind-boggling technology and Blade Runner-style urban landscapes. Contrary to that bizarre, yet sturdy, perception, the country is a nation and state like any other, with charms, foibles and contemporary challenges that the very real people living there must deal with every day. It’s these challenges that filmmaker Hikaru Toda, raised in the Netherlands and now based part time in the U.K., examines in Of Love & Law, a modest, clear-eyed and resonant documentary about the legal battles marginalized Japanese are fighting in 2018.
Tracking lawyers Masafumi Yoshida and Kazayuki Minami — Fumi and Kazu — who are also personal and professional partners, over the course of several years as they take on a string of constitutional challenges, Toda shines a light on the apparent self-contradiction and traditional rigidity that are making life difficult for thousands of Japanese citizens raised to be nonconfrontational and respectful of others and community to the detriment of themselves. Though the film isn’t particularly cutting-edge stylistically or formally, it doesn’t have to be: It has social currency on its side. Documentary and specialty events — LGBT and politically minded festivals — are sure to take an interest, and specialty cable and streaming services could prove to be the broad outlet Of Love & Law deserves.
The lives of Fumi and Kazu become something of a lens through which Toda examines Japanese society’s more draconian elements, particularly those that apply to freedom of expression, nonconforming legal statuses and LGBT rights. By virtue of being Osaka’s, and Japan’s, first openly gay practicing lawyers, the slightly dour, serious-looking Kazu and the round-faced and approachable Fumi attract a niche clientele almost by default: those who feel Japan’s tendency to social conformity and obedience is suffocating their personal freedoms, quashing their voices, jeopardizing their very survival or all of the above.
Among the cases Fumi and Kazu take on are those of an artist arrested for obscenity as a result of her vagina-themed art, this despite Kazu waltzing into an adult department store and buying all manner of sex toys from the window display; a teacher who refused to sing the national anthem as a form of protest and lost her job for it (sound familiar, Mr. Kaepernick?); and a pair of twentysomethings who were undocumented on their crucial koseki — family registries — for varying reasons, including hiding from an abusive husband. Without a registration, the two have nominal legal status as citizens at best, and are unable to get passports, driver’s licenses or into university, among other issues. (Notably, South Korea abolished its equivalent, hoju, 10 years ago.)
Toda brings the same curiosity to her subject that she did to her previous doc, Love Hotel, which looked to the residents and staff of one of those singularly Japanese institutions for insight into their role in society and the nature of human sexuality. And like her approach in that film, the director is in a show-more-than-tell mood, never injecting her opinions into the stories. In Of Love & Law, she lays out the details, and lets the inconsistencies, illogic and, to Western audiences, illegalities that abound reveal themselves.
Most interesting perhaps is how the film doubles as a record of two men proudly bucking an entrenched, confining system and blossoming despite it (Fumi and Kazu have been together 15 years), and as a portrait of a nation in flux, one that is being forced to deal with the individual at a pace and in a way it never has before. Given the film’s somewhat limited resources, it helps that Fumi and Kazu, as well as Kazu’s mother (who works at the firm) and a teen they’re fostering, are a relatable, empathetic bunch with an unwavering faith in the law as a tool of egalitarianism. The subject matter simply drives home the point that rights and freedoms are being curtailed in every corner of the globe, and even “progressive” and “modern” states like Japan can drop the ball on human rights as easily as frequent targets of indignation in Africa and the Middle East. Fumi and Kazu’s results are a mixed bag (they win some fights, get about halfway with others), but even their failures will resonate, perhaps more so.
Production company: Hakawati, Little Stranger Films
Cast: Masafumi Yoshida,Kazayuki Minami
Director: Hikaru Toda
Producer: Elhum Shakerifar, Hikaru Toda
Director of photography: Jason Brooks
Editor: Takeshi Hata
Music: Yuichiro Maeda
World sales: Hakawati, Little Stranger Films
No rating, 94 minutes