Hideaki Anno’s Love & Pop (1998) explores an activity that is apparently fairly popular in Japan, called enjo-kosai; compensated dating. Hiromi and her three friends are normal, middle-class teenagers in Japan, but they are not immune to the lure of fancy things. They decide to advertise themselves for compensated dating in order to have some extra cash. When Hiromi sees a beautiful ring in a high-end department store, she decides to take part in compensated dating by herself in order to raise funds to buy the ring; even as the depravity of her clients begins to emerge.
It is interesting to note that the practice of compensated dating is not akin to prostitution; there is not necessarily any sexual contact involved. Girls who engage in compensated dating go on dates with men who just want a companion, with a cash reward at the end. Unsurprisingly, some of the men that Hiromi and her friends meet in Love & Pop are not ideal partners. One particular man just wants to feed them a home-cooked meal. Another takes Hiromi to a video rental shop where he engages her in some untoward activity. The morals of Hiromi’s clients seem to increasingly become degraded, until the film’s confronting and sobering conclusion.
The film is wholly shot from hand-held cameras, which means that there are very strange camera angles that would not be possible if the film was shot on a regular camera. As a result, the visual quality is like that of a VHS home movie. So if you’re looking for crisp, Blu-Ray visuals, this isn’t the film for you. If you are entertained by the most creative camera angles you’ll see this side of Shibuya crossing, this is your film. Some of my favourites were shots during a breakfast scene: from inside someone’s jumper, from inside a microwave, from the bottom of a glass as water is being drunk, and from a small toy train. There is also a poignant shot from inside Hiromi’s desired ring, with Hiromi looking down on it with a look of pure love; the view is ruby red, as if you are the stone of the ring itself, pleading Hiromi to “buy me!”. However, beyond these artistic camera angles is a story that can be extremely disturbing.
In terms of its message, I think this film was an interesting, if heavy, exploration of materialism with a cultural twist. The gaze of the film is honest and blunt, and does not shy away from showing exactly what can go wrong when engaging in an activity that could be particularly dangerous for young girls. The film’s discussions of self-worth versus the desire for an ideal lifestyle are of particular significance when the girls are faced with the choice of whether to continue going on dates, or lose their opportunity to make more money. The film’s layers of symbolism also definitely call for a re-watch. Knowing the ending, watching the film from the beginning again gives it a completely different tone.
I am a huge fan of Hideaki Anno’s Neon Genesis Evangelion series. If you are too, you’ll notice the characteristic use of crickets in the background of most outdoor scenes. One of Hiromi’s clients also reminds me slightly of Shinji Ikari in his blunt acceptance of his own self-hatred. It seems that Anno has hidden a number of small presents in the film for Evangelion fans. The shots that are seen from inside objects reminds me of one moment in the series’ film End of Evangelion, where one shot is seen either from inside a huge grandfather clock, or inside a room which has a giant ceiling pendulum. It is these visual ambiguities that make Love & Pop a compelling watch, and sometimes a confusingly humorous one.
Ultimately, this is a film about greed and materialism, but also the bond of friendship in the face of bizarre and disturbing events that challenge ones’ self-worth. Hiromi and her friends stick together regardless of their dating choices. The final image of the film is one of solidarity, but also realism; the four friends walk together, regardless of whether they walk in the gutter or not. I would recommend Love & Pop not only as an excellent dramatic film, but also a fascinating insight into a distinctly Japanese cultural practice from an adolescent perspective.