Ai (Sairi Ito) has a rough start in life. Her mother is completely devoted to her guru but not motherhood. No surprise when the six-year-old is sent to live in her mother’s religious compound. As Ai learns to channel bliss from God by waving her hands in the air, she also comes to be a favorite of the cult leader, a caucasian expat named Levi. As she becomes a teen, Ai enjoys a privileged position in the cult bubble loved by her fellow cult members and a protégé to Levi, at last adopting the name Andana, Bliss. Unfortunately, the cult is invaded and Levi arrested. Ai returns home to a world that seems to have no place for her. Her mother has moved on to a completely different religion and the kids in middle school think even her name, Andana, is giggle-worthy. Why can’t the love Ai has to give be enough to secure her a place in the world where she can be loved for who she is?
This is the auspicious start of Love and Other Cults, a dark comedy about the world of lower-class Japanese teenagers by Eiji Uchida. Uchida is known for his low-budget films, but this plot and character heavy film manages to make it seem anything but. Ai’s life is followed through the eyes of Ryota (Kenta Suga), another social outcast is as tough as he is intelligent. He moons over Ai as she journeys from one group to the next — a would-be Yakuza motorcycle gang, an apartment of high school druggie drop outs, and a traditional Japanese family. Throughout, Uchida uses a kaleidoscope of characters to give permutations on how life-changing love in all its many forms can be.
While it is sometimes tricky to keep track of the timeline of events and the plot seems to be missing a few transition points along the way, the characters and situations make this highly watchable and well balanced. The excellent cast gives nuanced performances that are neither too twee nor too dark. The comedy is spot on, tuned up just enough to counter what could otherwise be a miserable look at delinquents and misfits.
Love and Other Cults played at Fantasia on July 24. The festival continues until August 3. Information and tickets can be found HERE.