Friday, June 26, 2009

Top Ten Japanese LGBT Films

All of us sat around recently hashing out ideas for a good Top Ten List for the end of June, and we came up with quite a few very good ideas, ideas that we think you'd have a lot of fun reading through and most importantly tracking down the films listed. One idea came up again and again though, one that was a bit more challenging, but that we just couldn't set aside due to its timeliness and importance. So while you might have to wait a little bit longer for us to post our Top Ten Favorite Samurai/ Ronin or our Top Ten Favorite Actresses we are proud (proud being the operative word) to present what we think are the Top Ten Best Japanese Lesbian/ Gay/ Bisexual/ Transgendered Films. Here's wishing all our LGBT readers out there a very happy Pride weekend!

10. Boy's Choir - Akira Ogata (2000)

Akira Ogata's 200 debut feature film "Boy's Choir" starts off our list at number ten mainly due to its ambiguity. While the homosexual subtext in this early 1970's era story of two orphaned teenage boys, stuttering Michio (Atsushi Ito) and the angelic-voiced Yasuo (Sora Tôma), who come together to sing in their Catholic boy's school choir is glaringly obvious Ogata never makes their sexual awakening the thrust of the film. Instead its the power of friendship, finding one's own voice and the love that can grow between two people, be they two 15-year-old boys or a middle aged-couple that lays at the heart of this remarkable piece of work. The struggle to be accepted by both your peers and acceptance of oneself during adolescence is one that I think everyone can relate to, but gay and lesbian audiences have found an extra poignance in the friendship forged between Michio and Yasuo in "Boy's Choir". In an age when so many Japanese films are manga adaptations Kenji Aoki's original screenplay provides a multi-layered depiction of Japan's youth in an age of student protests and cultural turmoil. To reduce "Boy's Choir" to an "Are these boys gay or aren't they?" argument would do a huge disservice to Aoki's script and Ogata's direction. Interpretation is key in any work of art, but if gay and lesbian audiences can find a special affinity with these characters then it definitely deserves a spot on this list. CM

9. Love My Life - Koji Kawano (2007)

In 2007 director Koji Kawano adapted Ebine Yamaji's josei, or "woman's" manga "Love My Life" to the big screen, but this manga wasn't the soft focus romance between a pretty young girl and a handsome young man that manga fans are used to. "Love My Life" follows the relationship between Ichiko (Rei Yoshii), a University student and her girlfriend Eri (Asami Imajuku). Kawano, who would go on to make such V-Cinema exploitation films as "Attack Girls' Swim Team Versus the Undead" and "Cruel Restaurant", includes plenty of scenes of these two attractive young women kissing, cuddling and indulging in some erotic candy nibbling, but "Love My Life" isn't just about titillating the film's female and male viewers. The narrative meat of the film comes when Ichiko finally decides to come out to her father, an English translator played by Ira Ishida. Ichiko's confession is greeted by a certain amount of surprise from Dad, but it ends up illiciting his own confession to his daughter: he too is gay. His relationship with Ichiko's mother was one of mutualconvenience with both Ichiko's parents wishing to have a child, so they married in order to make that dream come true. As the film progresses Ichiko and Eri end up meeting Ichiko's father's lover and learning more about his arranged marriage. In the end what sets "Love My Life" apart from other lesbian/ gay-themed films in Japan is its accepting and mature attitude towards not only Ichiko's reltionship, but her father's as well. CM

8. Yaji & Kita: The Midnight Pilgrims - Kankuro Kudo (2005)

By 2005 35-year-old Kankuro Kudo had made a name for himself both at home in Japan and abroad by penning quirky, inventive and sometimes surreal screenplays for films like Isao Yukisada's "Go", Fumihiko Sori's "Ping Pong", and Takashi Miike's "Zebraman", so when it came for him to try his hand at directing what do you think he came up with? A film that was quirky, inventive and very definitely surreal, but one that also gave a very contemporary take on one of Japanese literature and cinema's most famed duos. Kudo based “Yaji and Kita: The Midnight Pilgrims” on the manga by Kotobuki Shiragari, which in turn was based on "Tōkaidōchū Hizakurige", the classic 18th-century comic novel by Jippensha Ikku about a pair of bumbling tourists named Yajirobē and Kitahachi who are on a pilgrimage to the famed shrines at Ise. While the original novel clearly depicts Yaji and Kita being interested in female travelers just as much as the sites on the road in "Midnight Pilgrims" the two only have eyes for each other. Yaji (played by TOKIO member Nagase Tomoya leaves old Edo for Ise to help his drug-addicted lover Kita (kabuki actor Nakamura Shichinosuke) kick his habit for good. Kudo goes straight for historical anachronisms by having the couple ride a Harley Davidson and encounter hallucinatory comic sequences right from the get go. Sadly he also takes the depiction of this central gay couple into equally broad territory, and we're often forced to ask ourselves if we're laughing with Yaji and Kita or at them, but in the end there's more good than bad in the decision to give a gay slant on one of Japan's cultural institutions. CM

7. Where Are We Going? - Yoshihiko Matsui (2008)

In the past few years the Japanese have been fascinated by what they perceive as the rise transexual and transgendered (wo)men who they have dubbed ニューハーフ or "the new half". Sadly most of the attention the media has given to these men transitioning or transitioned to women is of the leering and finger pointing variety with panel shows dedicating air time to "Can you spot the new half?" segments. Leave it up to one of the most revered independent Japanese filmmakers of the past quarter century to seriously incorporate a transgendered character into one of his films. Yoshihiko Matsui burst onto the jishu eiga, or "underground movie" scene in the early 1980's. His film "Noisy Requiem" which loosely revolved around a sexually deviant serial killer on the loose in Osaka's Shinsekai district has become a contemporary indie classic, but after its release in 1988 Matsui basically stopped directing and devoted himself to writing and painting. It was only last year that he came out of his self-imposed directorial exile to make "Where Are We Going?" a love story/ road movie with a new-half character at its center. Akira (Shuji Kashiwabara), a gay orphaned machine shop worker who spends most of his time speeding around on his motorcycle one day nearly runs over a beautiful woman. He's instantly (and strangely) attracted to her, quickly discovers she is a "new-half" (played by real-life transexual, Anzu). Fueled by their new romance, anger at having been marginalized by the world and a murder committed by Akira the two hit the road. Who would have thought that after a 22-year absence from the director's chair that Matsui would produce this timely and important LGBT film? CM

6. Big Bang Love Juvenile A - Takashi Miike (2006)

Just with the sheer variety of films that director Takashi Miike has made over his 80 film, 18 year career, from gory horror to children's adventures, it seems almost inevitable that he would tackle a gay-themed project sooner or later. That time came in 2006 when he released the sometimes fascinating, sometimes confounding art house drama "4.6 Billion Year Love", or as it's more commonly known in North America, "Big Bang Love Juvenile A". Based on a novel by Masaki Ato the films follows a murder investigation that takes place in a prison after Jun (Ryuhei Matsuda) is found hovering over the lifeless body of his cellmate Shiro (Masanobu Ando) and almost immediately confesses to killing him. As the police dig deeper into the crime, though, they discover that not all is what it seems to be. They also discover the romantic relationship that took place between the two inmates. Could this have been a crime of passion, and is Jun really guilty? As in many of Miike's films the basic questions posed in the storyline are confused by the off the wall and intuitive visual and narrative choices that have become a hallmark of his filmography. Miike borrows heavily from filmmakers Lars Von Trier and Japan's original bad boy filmmaker Seijun Suzuki to take this prison and its inmates out of our regular time and space and literally arresting them in a half-life in... the future?... the past? It's hard to tell, but what comes through all the deliberate artistry is the slow burn romance that takes place between Matsuda's and Ando's two characters. There's also a fair bit of eye candy shots of the two heartthrobs in various prison cell and shower scenes. CM

5. Manji - Yasuzo Masumura (1964)

The translated title of the novel "Manji" is "Quicksand" - a very apt metaphor which describes the obsessive love that continuously pulls the story's characters back in no matter how hard they fight it. It's also the Japanese word for the Buddhist swastika symbol representing the joining of heaven and earth, the balance of yin and yang and the interaction between all four. In its left facing configuration, it also is meant to represent love and mercy. The screenplay by Kaneto Shindo (based on the 1930's novel by Junichiro Tanizaki) manages to weave in all those themes that "Manji" can represent. The first half of the film actually flies by - it gradually builds the relationship between bored housewife Sonoko (played by Kyoko Kishida from "Woman In The Dunes") and the younger beautiful Mitsuko through a series of flashbacks related by Sonoko herself. The episodic nature of the film at this stage likely comes from the initial serialization of the novel, but it's very effective as we see the friendship build through moments of tenderness to what you believe to be love and then to obsession on Sonoko's part. Mitsuko (Sonoko calls her the "Goddess of Mercy") also seems caught up in the new affair, but we soon learn that she may not be quite as innocent as we thought. Things begin to complicate themselves one night when she calls Sonoko from a hotel asking her for some clothes for herself as well as for a man (who ends up being her fiancee). The film shifts tone a bit at this stage and the complications build upon one another as the fiancee and Sonoko's husband are all brought into the mix - a mix that seems to be controlled at every step by Mitsuko herself. Sonoko always seems to be at one end of her spectrum of emotions, but since the story is pure melodrama it matches it perfectly (as does the vivid style of the film). Director Yasuzo Masumura seems to enjoy pushing boundaries ("Manji" was released 45 years ago) and would likely be pleased at the lack of middle ground regarding opinions towards the film. BT

4. Funeral Parade of Roses - Toshio Matsumoto (1969)

If Toshio Matsumoto's 1969 independent film "Funeral Parade of Roses" is any indication Japan's counterculture, and specifically gay counterculture, of the late 60's was just as vibrant and iconoclastic as what was going on in the West during that same period. Matsumoto, who began his career making experimental shorts shot his debut feature "Funeral Parade of Roses" at the ground zero of Tokyo's underground nightlife: the gay and drag bars of Roppongi and Shinjuku. It was here that he actually discovered the lead actor for "Parade", a drag queen who simply went by the name Peter, to basically play herself, a transvestite hostess who is vying with another drag queen for the affections of a drug dealer. If the plot sounds thin to you then you'd be right. Matsumoto wasn't so much concerned with hard narrative as he was with kaleidoscopic visuals, free-wheeling experience and sometimes just pure shock channeled through Godard, Oshima and with a nod to Sophocles' "Oedipus Rex in presenting the subculture of the time. While "Funeral Parade of Roses" was hugely influential on like-minded filmmakers in the 60's and 70's (it's long been rumoured that Stanley Kubrick lifted entire sequences for use in his 1971 film "A Clockwork Orange") it made little headway with mainstream Japanese audiences who didn't know quite what to make of the film's unflinching depiction of its gay and transgendered characters and shortly after its theatrical release sank into obscurity. Thankfully its reputation brought it to the attention of UK-based distributor Eureka who released it on DVD under its Masters of Cinema line in 2006. It's been through this release that a whole new generation of audiences have been reintroduced to this seminal Japanese LGBT film. CM

3. Taboo (Gohatto) - Nagisa Oshima (1999)

Nagisa Oshima’s last film, "Gohatto", tells the story of the Shinsengumi, a samurai militia force from the Shogunate era, and of Kano , a skilled young recruit. His long hair and androgynous looks make him an object of desire for many of the men around him, including Tadanobu Asano’s clingy Tashiro. Initially, I was quite surprised by the film’s approach to homosexuality. Instead of acting as a major source of conflict within the compound on the grounds of its very existence (as I originally expected), male love is instead openly tolerated by the officers, though still regarded as peculiar. Yet Kano and the feelings of attraction and jealousy that he inspires still lead to dire consequences among the ranks, leading me to believe that the taboo referred to in the film’s English title refers not to gay love, but simply love and the danger it poses to the samurai codes of honor, duty and obedience that are upheld at its expense. Ultimately, Gohatto provides Oshima with one more chance to champion love above the system. In this respect, it fits within his body of work alongside such previous studies of extreme, overpowering passion and the friction it creates against the restraints of society as "In the Realm of the Senses" and "Max Mon Amour". That he this time chooses it to be gay desire only further emphasizes his oft-repeated message that any kind of love is more precious and sacred than none at all. MSC

2. Okoge - Takehiro Nakajima (1992)

The term okoge can refer to two things in Japanese: first, it can mean the crust that forms on the bottom of a pan when rice is accidentally burned or browned. The second slang meaning for okoge is the Japanese equivalent of our North American "fag hag", a woman who enjoys hanging out with gay men as opposed to straight men or women. It's the latter usage that writer/ director Takehiro Nakajima took as the title for his 1992 film "Okoge", which (no surprise) was about woman Sayoko (Misa Shimizu) who meets Goh and Tochi, a gay couple played by Takehiro Murata and Takeo Nakahara), at the beach and quickly befriends them. Sayoko even offers the two men the use of her apartment as a safe and friendly place to meet and soon the trio become inseperable. "Okoge" was one of the very first films, along with Ryosuke Hashiguchi's "A Touch of Fever" (more on that at #1) that helped bring gay issues and gay-themed cinema into the Japanese mainstream. It's original 6-week domestic theatrical run would be extended again and again until it ran in Japan for several months to adoring public and critical praise. Meanwhile overseas the popularity of Juzo Itami's films "Tampopo" and "A Taxing Woman during the 1980's got "Okoge" programmed at a number of films festivals in the West including the 1992 Toronto International Film Festival. Since its release though "Okoge" has been eclipsed by many of the other gay films (some on this very list) and is sadly in danger of becoming a footnote in Japanese and Gay Cinema history. CM

1. Hush! - Ryosuke Hashiguchi (2001)

In 1992 the term "gay" wasn't commonly used by everyday Japanese, but one film that brought the term and the subject of homosexuality out of the closet was Ryosuke Hashiguchi's film "A Touch of Fever". Hashiguchi was openly gay, had in fact struggled with his family to be so and was even sent to serve in Japan's Self Defense Forces by his unaccepting father in an attempt to toughen his son up. When "A Touch of Fever" opened in Tokyo its story of a romance between two young male street hustlers captured the public's imagination and set attendance records, but for all the waves Hashiguchi was making in Japan his name was little known by film enthusiasts elsewhere in the world. Hashiguchi's follow-up to "A Touch of Fever", 1995 "Like Grains of Sand" did marginally well, but his third film, 2001's comedy/ drama "Hush!" makes it all the way to the number one spot on our list for the success it enjoyed not only in Japan, but at festivals around the world and DVD releases in the U.S., France, The Netherlands, and right here in Canada. While the basic plot line of "Hush!" may smack of a socially progressive sitcom, a single woman makes the proposition to a gay couple to help her concieve a child, it's the believable characterizations (sometimes hilarious, sometimes heartbreaking) that Hashiguchi brings to openly gay Naoya (Kazuya Takahashi), his closeted lover Katsuhiro (Seiichi Tanabe) and Asako (Reiko Kataoka), the emotionally unstable young woman who ties the trio together in her ambition to have a baby that sets "Hush!" apart from the other films on our list. So does the fact that the film's frank, sympathetic depiction of the pleasures and perils of being gay in contemporary Japan far outstrips many other European and American gay-positive films in just in pure entertainment and human insight. "Hush!" is one that anyone interested in LGBT cinema should seek out. CM


Paul Robinson said...

Great list! Thanks for putting this together.

Akarui 光 said...

This is a wonderful list! I'm so glad I found this list! Thank you :)

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