Like his better-known countryman Beat Takashi, Eiji Okuda is a Japanese actor-turned-director who gives himself meaty parts in his own films. And in his 2001 directorial debut, Shoujyo: An Adolescent, Okuda seems to be channeling Takashi more directly, by casting himself as an unpleasant, opaque, yet sometimes sympathetic tough-guy lead whose actions suggest that he doesn't deserve happiness, and knows better than to look for it, at least in stretches longer than a nap or an orgasm. Starring as possibly the worst cop since Harvey Keitel in Bad Lieutenant, Okuda spends his days drinking, sleeping on the job, horsing around at the police station with mentally disabled teenager Akira Shoji, and nabbing the pets of lonely housewives, for later return as part of a seduction technique.


Then, out of the blue, an eerily passive 15-year-old (Mayu Ozawa) propositions him. She negotiates a price for sex, but departs their hotel room before he wakes up, leaving a note saying that she's decided not to charge him. Obsessed with her identity, he begins harassing local prostitutes and schoolgirls, trying to find her. Meanwhile, she's similarly obsessed with him, and is off masturbating to texts explaining the symbolism of his one-winged-bird tattoo. As the film unfolds, an increasingly unlikely number of connections between them emerge, complicating a relationship that's more about desperation and redemption than about sex, though given Ozawa and Okuda's collective emotional damage, it inevitably finds its expression in frantic coupling. Shoji eventually likens the lovers to a pair of junkyard dogs he saw mating, and while his unflattering comparison is born out of a damaging (and trite) childhood trauma, it still seems apt.

The problem is that both as a director and as an actor, Okuda never makes a particularly convincing case either for sex or for deeper commitment as a road away from the abyss. A certain painfully moving irony emerges from Ozawa's attempts to cling to Okuda for comfort, in spite of his lifetime of failing her and her family. But the more she makes him the center of her world, the more he becomes a cipher, and both his flat acting and his unimaginative direction seem to be relying on her passion to carry the film. Takashi also fetishizes his own unexpressive, spare characters, surrounding them with flashier performers until the contrast becomes either comic or terrifying. In Okuda's hands, the same disparity is neither. It simply leaves a confusing gulf at the heart of Shoujyo: An Adolescent, and the film's somewhat vague ending can't even suggest whether Ozawa has the power to fill that gulf, or is simply about to fall in and be lost.