Themes of teenage angst, abuse, cult indoctrination and loss of personal identity prevail in Eiji Uchida’s latest film which follows Lowlife Love (2015). It doesn’t sound like the premise for a bizarre and compelling romantic comedy with a unique blend of unrequited love, delinquent gangs, the sex industry and photographing fish but Love and Other Cults is just that. Wonderfully strange and relentless in pace, this is quite unlike any other teen coming of age drama that you’ve ever seen. And you’ll be thankful that even as events become (socially and morally) unacceptable on so many levels, you’ll grin as much as you’ll grimace at the glorious hubris of the whole affair.

Ryota Sakuma (Kenta Suga) recalls the story of the love of his life. She is Ai Shima (Sairi Itô) whose life from an early age was filled with incidents baffling both in their frequency and extremity, despite her resolution to resolve this multitude of adversities each time they appear. Ai was a self-harming little girl with an unconventional perception of parental love as her religiously fanatical mother dispatched her to a cult commune under the auspices of dubious leader Lavi (Matthew Chozick) who renamed her Ananda and introduced her to his nefarious religious affinities. When the police broke up the cult and sent Lavi to jail, the destitute girl sought solace with her mother, who has since changed religion several times, but is equally devoted to the latest nevertheless.

Ai finds no love at home and instead goes to school for the very first time. She declares to her new classmates, “I am Ananda. I like God,” which is perhaps not the most likely of classroom introductions, but she meets and befriends Ryota, himself an outsider who has connections with a gang of yakuza wannabes. Eventually Ai drops out of school and joins a delinquent family whose friends abuse her and then she moves into a more salubrious district when she is adopted by a nice wholesome family. The daughter initially welcomes Ai into the fold but becomes jealous as the affections of her parents favour their adoptee. Unfortunately Ai’s desire to provide gifts for her new family results in her taking an inappropriate job as a hostess and when discovered, her declaration “Dad, I’m your daughter, you can do whatever you like,” is deemed to be so repulsive that her exit from the family circle is inevitable. So what is to become of Ai, her situation, her friendships and their association with yakuza, youthful desire to be bosozoku and a future that offers nothing but confusion, alternate identities and even pink film stardom or the reintegration with cult leader and ex-prisoner Lavi? Can Ryota understand the situation, engage or cope with the outcome? Or become the only person apart from baseball bat wielding proto-gang member/leader Kenta Kitagawa (Antony) who might find true romance in an environment that seems to offer no prospects?

“In this town every day somebody breaks down.”

An epic biopic mixed with teenage rom-com that offers an entirely different perspective, Love and Other Cults accelerates through the years to devastating or delightfully romantic conclusion. The film’s strong point is that it is the characters’ non romantic integrity which initiates the film’s premise and the contemporary classmates and potential yakuza members play a central foil to the high-school teenage desires. Ironically the film plays its romantic trump-card oddities away from the lead protagonists with a romance between supporting characters where two scenarios of gang torture and fish photography somehow combine. If there are any minor issues with the film they lie with its length. In this age of never-ending superhero franchises that top the 2 ½ hour mark a modest length film might seem to be a blessing. But given the scale of the story, many of the incidents are merely referred to in passing accords (some briefly shown in the film’s deleted scene extras) so this is a film that seems to deserve a longer running time to accommodate the epic biography of the central protagonists. Highly recommended for those seeking romantic oddities away from the norm (norm-com, if you will) Love and Other Cults is totally original.