One thing that is repeated again and again about the films of Yasujiro Ozu is that almost his entire body of work, and certainly his later period films, are concerned with the disintegration of the traditional Japanese family. Well, this fact is so often repeated because it's true and Ozu's films have had such a lasting and universal appeal because of his long fascination with generational clashes that it is nearly impossible for contemporary audiences to watch a sensitive domestic drama without thinking of Ozu's work. This was the case for me as I sat to watch Takehiro Nakajima's 1992 film "Okoge", although most audiences would initially find it hard to draw parallels between Ozu's tatami mat rooms and mono no aware weepiness with a film about gay hook-ups, drag queens, childhood abuse and rape.
On a sunny summer day Sayoko (Misa Shimizu), an anime voice talent, heads to the beach with her co-worker and he co-worker's children. It's only once they scout out a perfect spot by the water that they realize that thius just isn't any beach - it's a gay beach. There she meets Goh (Takehiro Murata) and his older lover Tochi (Takeo Nakahara). Despite Tochi being trapped in a show marriage he is deeply in love with Goh and the sight of the two of them kissing in the surf sends a vicarious romantic thrill through Sayoko. Cut ahead and Goh and Tochi's liaisons at Goh's apartment are put to an end when Goh's mother (Noriko Sengoku) moves in after a fight with her daughter-in-law. Having to do his duty and take his mother in Goh is at a loss as to where he and his lover can share private time together. As if on cue Sayoko runs into the two at their local gay bar and offers a spare room in her flat to the displaced couple. The bartender asks if Sayoko is an "okoge", the Japanese slang term for a fag hag, or a woman who hangs out with gay men. Sayoko takes on the moniker with pleasure and soon the three are building a cozy friendship and then an unorthodox family unit in Sayoko's apartment... that is until Tochi's wife discovers what her husband is up to. Her threat to expose her husband's homosexuality sets off a chain of events that will fracture the trio of friends.
Longtime screenwriter Takehiro Nakajima takes what could have been a cliched tale of gay love and friendship and turned it into an insightful and affecting film. He accomplishes this in two ways - first, through careful and considerate character structuring, and secondly though an honest and often steamy depiction of gay romance. The love between Goh and Tochi is profound and Nakajima makes us feel for them as they try and negotiate a hotel room or anywhere private to be together away from the judgmental eyes of mainstream society. Although Sayoko's immature and overly enthusiastic invitation to share her apartment with these two strangers turns out to be a bit of a narrative speed bump Nakajima soon explains Sayoko's odd and impulsive behaviour. It turns out that Sayoko is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse at the hands of her foster father and bullying by her foster brothers and sisters. This has flipped her development so that sexuality was cruelly forced on her as a child, so subsequently Sayoko spends her adult life acting very much like a child. Still the buzz of her sexuality exists under cheery and oblivious exterior, but by taking in Goh and Tochi she can be a part of (without participating) a healthy adult sexual relationship. And when I say healthy I mean healthy. The love scenes between Takehiro Murata and Takeo Nakahara don't leave anything to the imagination. Praise has to be given to Nakajima for this honest depiction as so many filmmakers neuter gay relationships to make them palatable to straight audiences; but the way that Sayoko spends the scene listening through the walls to the lovemaking while leafing through an artbook of Frida Kahlo paintings is a lovely touch. Sex isn't the only thing treated honestly in "Okoge" though. A lover's fight between Tochi and Goh is as heartbreaking or more than most straight spats on screen, and the scene in which Tochi brings his drag queen friend to sub as his wife at a work colleague's wedding combines righteous rage and triumphant courage. But what does all this have to do with Ozu?
Despite the refinement, simple beauty and gentle humour of Ozu's films it becomes apparent that his view is ultimately a pessimistic one - the old ways and morals are doomed due to the younger Japanese generation's stubbornness, indifference, fascination with the modern. That's not to say that Ozu's young characters won't one day grow old and eventually bemoan how their own offspring have will let slide the traditions they've established, but the world that Ozu depicted was one of slow, inevitable decline and "Shikata ga nai...", "It can't be helped." Nakajima's film deals with the same kind of familial and generational conflicts, albeit based around the sexuality of its characters. Tochi's attempts at keeping face and maintaining harmony while hiding his homosexuality, Goh's conflicts with his family over getting trapped in an arranged marriage with a woman and in the end Goh's caring for his infirm mother, and Sayoko's constant struggle to maintain an emotional equilibrium while trying to come to terms with childhood abuse and search for an ideal family unit. Self-sacrifice to maintain a household, the conflict of wanting to be true to oneself while at the same time honouring the wishes of your parents and siblings, and the longing for an idealized family. These are all hallmarks of Ozu's cinema, but ultimately Sayoko's, Goh's and Tochi's failure to uphold "traditional" societal values and expectations can be helped. Unlike Ozu's world the three of them persevere and renew their damaged lives by establishing new traditions and concepts of family only partially based on previous paradigms. And what makes "Okoge" such an enjoyment is that the family that its three protagonists end up creating is based on the very best aspects of what society views as a traditional family - understanding, acceptance, respect and love.