To Love

Saturday, October 4, 1997

Author: Gerow, Aaron
Japanase Title: Aisuru
Director: Kumai Kei
Release Date: October 4, 1997


  • Production Company: Nikkatsu
  • Release: 4 October 1997
  • Length: 114 min.
  • Format: 35 mm; 1:1.85
  • Color: Color


  • Director: Kumai Kei
  • Executive Producer: Nakamura Masaya
  • Producer: Yamaguchi Tomozo
  • Screenplay: Kumai Kei
  • Original Story: Endo Shusaku
  • Photography: Tochizawa Masao
  • Music: Matsumura Teizo
  • Art Director: Kimura Takeo
  • Editor: Inoue Osamu


  • Morita Mitsu: Sakai Miki
  • Yoshioka Tsutomu: Watabe Atsuro
  • University hospital doctor: Okada Masumi
  • Sister Yamagata: Matsubara Chieko
  • Chief Nurse Inamura: Sanjo Miki
  • Dr. Okuhara: Kamijo Tsunehiko
  • Kano Taeko: Kishida Kyoko
  • Kamijo: Kobayashi Keiju

Spiritual Aims and Worldly Choices

Launched to commemorate Nikkatsu’s return to production after surviving bankruptcy proceedings, To Love recalls elements of the rich tradition of Japan’s longest running film company (since 1912, to be exact).

Not only do we enjoy seeing the faces of such old Nikkatsu stars as Shishido Jo and Matsubara Chieko, the photography shares in the deep, saturated blacks that permeated the backgrounds of much of the great films of the company’s heyday, the 1960s.

But whereas those great action movies of Ishihara Yujiro and Kobayashi Akira combined this noirish black with the garish neon colors of the postwar Tokyo demimonde, the overall tone of Kumai Kei’s To Love is a crisp, but faded gray. While stunningly shot by Tochizawa Masao, the film suppresses the carnal vitality of the former Nikkatsu in favor of the calculated urge to produce serious art.

Nikkatsu declared in its announcement to produce To Love the intention of creating a film that would play at foreign film festivals. That it has done (the movie played at the Montreal Film Festival), but in a year when Japanese films have been winning prizes right and left at major international venues - with Kitano Takeshi’s violent Hana-Bi the most recent coup at Venice - Nikkatsu does not seem to have realized that it can no longer get by on the festival circuit with just aestheticized seriousness.

Based on a story by the late Endo Shusaku and adapted by director Kumai Kei, To Love has a good pedigree. This is in fact Kumai’s third adaptation of the prize-winning novelist’s work, following the devastating Sea and Poison (“Umi to dokuyaku,” 1986) and the spiritually complex Deep River (“Fukai kawa,” 1995). The crew is also complete with such skilled Nikkatsu veterans as art director Kimura Takeo and editor Inoue Osamu.

But in spite of these artisans’ presence, the film sometimes descends into a preachy tearjerker. In the story, the childishly pure Mitsu (Sakai Miki) only just confirms her love for a socially alienated youth named Yoshioka (Watabe Atsuro) when she is diagnosed with leprosy and unceremoniously packed off to a sanitarium in the country.

There she - and we - encounter the sermons the film too heavily relies upon. It is a fact that Japan’s treatment of leprosy has been abominable. While a cure for the only mildly communicable disease has existed since the 1940s, under Japan’s long history of legalized eugenics, patients were forcibly incarcerated and stripped of basic human rights even up until 1996. The film rightly condemns this, but mainly through a series of voice-overs and flashbacks that are unrelated to Mitsu’s story and stink of soap-boxing.

In the end, the Christian Endo’s concern is not with this social tragedy, but with the crisis of conscience Mitsu undergoes. Soon finding out that the doctors had misdiagnosed her, Mitsu eagerly sets off to rejoin Yoshioka only to turn back at the train station. Suffering from Christian guilt and overwhelmed with the desire to help the other patients who have suffered so much, Mitsu becomes another of Endo’s “average women” who come to embody love not for a man but for mankind.

Her decision is reflected in the film’s own stylistic choices. As she represses her worldly love for Yoshioka, so the film tones down the sensual colorfulness of the Okinawan world he represents. This stylistic spirituality reflects on Kumai’s decision not to carry on the more earthly aspects of the Nikkatsu tradition, but it is never grounded in the psychology of the woman who becomes its symbol.

Much of the problem is in the acting. The supporting cast is a joy to watch and Watabe is not ineffective, but Sakai can show none of the emotional range of Akiyoshi Kumiko in Deep River. That Kumai must resort to blunt cross-cutting to explain Mitsu’s crisis of conscience at the station only underlines the fact Sakai is unable to do it via her own acting. Again, I am reminded that there are few good young actresses in Japanese film today.

Setting lofty goals of spirituality and high art, To Love never escapes the shallowness of its lead actress, despite all the skill and tradition that went into it.

Reviewed by Aaron Gerow

Originally appeared in The Daily Yomiuri, 9 October 1997, p. 9.

Copyright 1997: The Daily Yomiuri and Aaron Gerow