Cutting-edge Japanese director Takahisa Zeze (recipient of the FIPRESCI prize at the Berlin Film Festival for his 2011 effort Heaven’s Story) takes Mana Sakura’s hit novel The Lowlife and adapts it for the big screen. The book presents in fictionalized form the lives of three women touched by the porn industry in Japan, although the fiction has a strong basis in fact as Sakura is herself an “Adult Video” (AV) actress. The film simultaneously tells the independent stories of Ayano (Kokone Sasaki), an AV actress; Miho (Ayano Moriguchi), a housewife who dips into the porn industry; and Ayako (Aina Yamada), a high school student whose mother was a porn actress. It describes their worlds in slice-of-life fashion, making sex work in the porn industry understandable to mainstream audiences. The film is greatly enhanced by tour-de-force performances from Moriguchi and Sasaki, who both play conflicted protagonists.

The flick pays the most attention to Miho, a dissatisfied housewife who’s unsure what to do with her life. Her story picks up as her father is dying in the hospital. Miho has auditioned for a porn agency and soon gets the call that she’s gotten the job. Moriguchi does a superb job in depicting the fear, apprehension, excitement, bewilderment, and hurt Miho experiences as she participates in her first porn shoot. While she’s on set and unreachable, her father passes away, driving home the costs of her unconventional decision. Ayano, a beautiful twenty-something, is a veteran of the industry and even brags her nether regions are steel-plated. But when her mother discovers her profession Miho must face her disapproval.

The most heart-rending story is of Ayako and her mother Takako (Saki Takaoka), a deeply cynical pachinko- and alcohol-addicted forty-something retired from the porn industry. After Ayako wins a prestigious art prize to study in Europe, her school explodes with rumors that her mother was an AV actress. Always a loner, Ayako is aghast and ashamed, feeling more isolated than ever. There is a clever denouement that ties together Ayako and Miho, characters essentially unknown to each other, and helps to suggest Ayako may be able to move past her shame.

Neither the book or film glamorizes or condemns the porn industry. It is clear they intend to portray it simply as another profession, an effort to destigmatize sex work. Miho seems particularly comfortable with her job, but when mainstream disgrace crashes her party she cannot contain her tears. The affecting stories are likely to cause some to rethink their bias against AV professionals.

(Japanese title: Saitei; 120min.)