A typical Hollywood rom-com has a clear purpose: to feed a fantasy that gives the audience hope. Whether it’s realistic is secondary. We know human relationships are irrational. Rom-com writers do not have to worry about making sense. A billionaire poet with a Ph.D. in theoretical physics who looks like David Beckham and loves you even if you are a complete loser—the audience wants to believe such a person exists. Hollywood’s answer is a resounding yes. They leave no doubt and end with a “happily ever after.”
Watch Just Only Love with this expectation; you’d be thoroughly disappointed. Quite typical of romantic Japanese films, the characters are poor, ordinary folks with no notable achievement in life. The central theme is unrequited love, which, as it turns out, is so common that all relationships depicted in the film are such.
When love is one-sided, the relationship devolves into a master-slave dialectic, where the master unconsciously becomes abusive towards the slave. So, the film asks a Hegelian question: But is it really the master’s fault? This insight comes from Sumire, an unconventional woman who behaves more like an American—assertive, opinionated, and blunt. She blames the slavish person who satisfies the master’s every whim, calling him “selfish.” When you first hear it, it sounds counter-intuitive, but it sinks in over time, not just for the characters but also for the audience.
When someone is utterly subservient to you, what is the right response? It would be cruel to ghost him. If you cannot reciprocate his feelings, you’d be burdened with mixed feelings of guilt, pity, and annoyance. You’d feel trapped because there is no easy way out. You try to be nice because you are a decent person, but you cannot suppress your true feelings forever. You’d feel guilty for loving another person too. Eventually, you begin to resent the situation, if not the person.
The slave in the relationship is selfish in that he is blind to your predicament. Why? Because he has his own reasons he wants you. It’s not so much that he loves you but that he loves the idea of you. Who you are as a symbol means something in his fantasy, and you happen to fulfill it. He is willing to move a mountain to win that trophy. Because servitude can easily be mistaken for acts of love, everyone is fooled, including the slavish partner.
Just Only Love methodically illustrates how this works. Towards the end, self-awareness kicks in, and one by one, every character is transformed, except for the wisest of all, Sumire. The masters cannot end the relationships; the slaves wouldn’t let go and forever drag their feelings of self-pity because, after all, they need their fantasies to tolerate their lives. It’s less painful to feel sorry for themselves than to kill their fantasies, hopes, and raison d’etre. Hollywood rom-coms perpetuate the suffering by encouraging people to be in this state of self-delusion forever. Just Only Love encourages you to move beyond it.
The film makes you wonder what love is, if not these fantasies. The original title in Japanese is 愛がなんだ which can be interpreted to mean “What about love?” or “Who cares about love?” It convincingly tells us what is not love but leaves the question unanswered or open-ended. Japanese audience is generally okay with that feeling of ambivalence.
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