23 year-old Kaze Shindo has cinema flowing through her veins. Literally. Her grandfather is none other than scriptwriting stalwart Kaneto Shindo whose own directorial works include such noble efforts as Island (Hadaka no Shima, 1962), Onibaba (1964) and Black Cat (Kuroneko, 1968), still working to this day, and whose five decades within the industry formed the basis of the documentary Oji-Chan (My Grandfather) which Kaze made in 1998 whilst still studying at the Japan Film School.
Covering similar ground to Ryosuke Hashiguchi's Like Grains of Sand (Nagisa no Shindobaddo, 1995), a sympathetic portrayal of an adolescent high school student's emerging homosexual feelings for his best friend, Kaze Shindo's feature debut Love / Juice is a fresh-faced take on the conflicts between friendship and sexual desire.
Two young girls, Kyoko (Okuna) and Chinatsu (Fujimura, recently seen in supporting roles in Misa the Dark Angel / Eko Eko Azaraku III and Moonlight Whispers / Gekko No Sasayaki) co-habit an apartment in modern-day Tokyo. Best friends, they share everything together, including a bed. They cruise the local night-spots for fun, do drugs, and when their financial situation gets too tight they take a job together as Bunny Girls in a male-only bar in order to pay the rent.
However, for Chinatsu the relationship is more than platonic, and jealousy encroaches when her sphinx-like roommate makes a play for a boy working in a local tropical fish shop. Chinatsu tries to divert her attention away by buying her a goldfish which for the rest of the film sits symbolically in a cramped glass bowl in the kitchen. However, Kyoko waves aside Chinatsu's earnest attempts at engaging in any sexual relationship until her repeated rebuttals eventually drive an intractable wedge between them.
In Love / Juice, Chinatsu's own preferences for the same sex are highlighted in the early nightclub scenes, where her attempts at picking up other girls end in bitter disappointment ("Why was I born a girl!", her tearful refrain). Adopting the predatory "male" role, with her fuller face and close-cropped hair, Chinatsu is by turns predatory, sullen and demanding. She carries a camera in which she frequently tries to "capture" Kyoko's image, underscoring the idea that sexual obsession ultimately equates to a yearning for possession (the desire for osmosis and themes of cannibalism are also subtly introduced at the end of the film). The more traditionally feminine Kyoko is teasing and skittish, quite literally impenetrable; an 'obscure object of desire' to paraphrase Bu˝uel, fully content to watch Chinatsu bring herself to orgasm in a scene where she turns the tables on her would-be seductress, whilst at the same time flirting with any boy that wanders into the frame leaving her admirer fuming at the sidelines.
Shindo foregrounds the relationship between the two female protagonists, almost reducing periphery male characters to the level of ciphers. The world focused upon here is purely a girls' one, warm and intimate, and for Chinatsu, uncomfortable with her own role within the wider context of a male-oriented society, any forays outside it prove quite literally fraught with danger.
Conciliation seems impossible as Kyoko remains fully aware of her best friend's desire for her, indeed revels in it, yet perversely flits way from the engagement of a full-blown sexual relationship with showy displays of emotional onanism. The treatment of such themes in Love / Juice could just as well be applied to the power play which exists at the core of any ill-matched relationship, not just a girl-girl one. One party chases, the other is chased; one kicks, the other is kicked.
Though the naturalistic performances coaxed out of the two attractive young leads here may be down to their similarities in age and gender with that of the director (a fact worth stressing, if only because of the fact that their aren't many female director's working in the Japanese film industry at the moment, and certainly not so young), Shindo also displays an innate talent for visual storytelling. Long static tableaux of the girls draped over each other complement the dialogue; the colourful scenes within the tropical fish shop open the film out nicely from the potentially claustrophobic scenes set within the apartment.
Despite the limited funds on which it was obviously made and a slightly unsatisfying ambiguous code, Love / Juice is a fresh and naturalistic piece of female-oriented low-budget realism set against the backdrop of modern day Tokyo, and is an enjoyable and undeniably warm-hearted debut from a director who looks like she has a fascinating career ahead of her.