A Strikingly Honest Reality Show About Sex, Money, and Health

At first glance, the premise of Love Village (or Ai no Sato in Japanese) is standard reality-TV fodder: Four women and four men inhabit a house together, hoping to find love among their cohort. A pair of hosts comment on the goings-on from a separate studio, as on Terrace House, a Japanese reality show that followed six young strangers living together, and Single’s Inferno, a Korean dating show set on an island. But Love Village, the Japanese show that was released on Netflix last month, tacks a caveat on to its setup: All of its participants are at least 35 years old, and most of them are in their 40s to 60s. This changes the dynamic completely.

35 isn’t old. But when I was growing up in Japan in the ’90s, it wasn’t uncommon for people to refer to unmarried 26-year-old women as “Christmas cakes.” The phrase meant that single women over 25 were like seasonal baked goods at the store on December 26: beyond their sell-by date. Today, Japan wrestles with a declining birth rate and an aging society, where almost a third of the population is 65 or older.  Many of these adults now choose to be single and unmarried. The U.S. is on a similar path: By 2030, “older Americans” will make up more than 20 percent of the population, according to the Census Bureau, and the number of unpartnered adults is growing. Through this lens, Love Village’s decision to focus on people who are mostly in the latter half of their life reflects a truth that’s already around us. It’s also one we don’t often see on TV. This will not be yet another show about taut, hormone-addled young adults falling for one another. Instead, Love Village asks us to witness and admire the less commonly shown search for a partner by a 50-something actor or a 60-year-old landlord. And one of the most significant differences between this show and others like it is how its participants talk about sex.

Twelve minutes into the first episode, the Love Village cohort sits around a dining table and plays a game where they have to answer anonymous questions submitted by their fellow housemates. After a first question asking what people’s highest level of education is, the second query asks about people’s most exciting sexual encounter. On other reality shows, this scene might be full of posturing, of participants trying to appear sexier than everyone else. But on Love Village, the crew answers with impressive candor. Some say their most thrilling encounter was with the person they loved the most; another cast member reminisces about losing his virginity to an older woman. One of the oldest in the group, a 60-year-old children’s-book author, proudly talks about the sex she had on the night her first husband proposed to her. She says she felt, for the first time, like she could get pregnant and it would be okay. Though there’s an expected amount of tittering and flushed faces, no one dodges the question. Sex is an artifact of life, their answers say. It was important in previous courtships, marriages, and divorces. It isn’t scandalous or taboo, but rather a part of living well.

[Read: Where sex positivity falls short]

Yet sex isn’t just remembered; it also plays into the dynamics among castmates on Love Village. In a memorable if disconcerting moment, a 50-year-old actor who goes by Hollywood (the cast members use nicknames, not their real names) rants about how attire in historic Japan offered people easier access to one another’s bodies. To illustrate his point, he opens his kimono—under which he is wearing underwear—in front of the object of his affection, a 45-year-old barista named Yukiemon. She calls Hollywood out for being inappropriate—another example of a cast member tackling a potentially awkward situation head-on. But then the scene cuts to a confessional with Yukiemon, who says that although the event was uncomfortable, she feels that, having seen something of Hollywood’s body, he is still the person in the house she is most interested in having sex with.

This moment is a far cry from the euphemistic ways of dealing with sex on a show such as Terrace House, where, when cast members successfully coupled off, their other housemates prepared a room where the couple could “sleep together.” This approach is also different from U.S. reality shows, which can be more salacious while dancing around the practical calculations that people make about intimacy and partnership. On The Bachelor, for instance, sex frequently has a hazy mystique: It’s idealized and implied, but rarely spoken about with Love Village’s kind of nuanced, no-nonsense language. On Love Village, the cast’s age and experience allow for a more unadorned and rational perspective on sex. Yukiemon is honest about her interest in a short-term physical encounter, while also being clear about what behavior she finds acceptable.

Frankness isn’t reserved exclusively on Love Village to conversations about sex. Cast members are just as forthright about other topics that are often glossed over in reality-TV courtships. Take, for example, a moment in the sixth episode when participants discuss how much they have in their savings accounts. As a result of this conversation, Anchovy, a 45-year-old chef, ends his crush on a house member, because he can’t respect the way she handles money. In another scene, a 36-year-old yoga instructor named Yukorin asks the men if they want children. They all answer with vague niceties about wanting to support their partners’ choices, which frustrates Yukorin, who points out that childbirth later in life can be a precarious health decision. She doesn’t just want a yes or no answer; she wants evidence of serious thought to the ways women put their body on the line when they have kids. Just as a successful relationship requires communication about sex, the show implies, it also requires openness about health-care and medical decisions.  

Reality TV is seldom totally unscripted, so its characters’ candidness should generally be taken with a grain of salt. Yet Love Village’s sincere way of handling sex—as well as other aspects of building a relationship—ultimately offers a view of romantic life that is hopeful in its sustainability. Too often, TV depictions of aging go hand in hand with a sort of nihilism, as if once people have exited the age where they could conceivably appear on The Bachelor or Single’s Inferno, a sensual life becomes a far-off prospect. Instead, Love Village reinforces the way experience, pragmatism, and honesty can also lead to romance, which changes over time, shaped by likes, dislikes, and all of the experiences that life throws at us. And then it comes into clearer view: a coherent, confident thing with borders and, fundamentally, a well-earned sense of delight.