Hello there, and welcome to another issue of Your Japanese Film Insight. Following on from our interview with Third Window Films last month that discussed how the company helped to push Japanese films beyond their prior assumptions to flourish in the UK and elsewhere, this time I would like to return to discussing the domestic Japanese film market. This time last year I discussed representation in early Japanese cinema and the history of queer identity in Japanese entertainment spanning long before the birth of cinema. Today, I want to shine a lens on the issues that come with modern LGBTQ+ representation in the entertainment arena and, particularly, Japanese cinema.
What is LGBTQ+ representation like in Japanese film today? Well, that depends a lot on the motivations behind the representation and the budgets driving the projects.
The Divide in LGBTQ+ Representation in Independent and Major Japanese Film Productions
Before discussing LGBTQ+ representation in Japanese media and movies today, we need to go back to the 1990s and discuss the so-called ‘gay boom’.
LGBTQ+ representation before the 1990s often came through the lens of performance and as an avenue for queer people to express their identity, even if it was often for the amusement of a heteronormative society and by necessity after many individuals were ostracized from mainstream society into entertainment and sex work. Occasionally this would perforate mainstream discussion like when the Le Carrousel de Paris cabaret came to Japan in the 1960s, but even this was more as a bemused spectacle than a serious discussion on the rights and lives of trans, gender-non-conforming, or LGBTQ+ people in Japan at this time.
While the Japanese media’s embrace of queerness as spectacle had allowed LGBTQ+ people to find a place in Japan through entertainment and even appear on Japanese TV on variety shows like Waratte Ii Tomo which featured a ‘Mr Lady’ segment in the 1980s, a major shift in portrayal and discussion began to occur in the early 1990s. At this time, more media outlets placed a greater emphasis on exploring gay (and to a far lesser, perfunctory state, lesbian) relationships not as a source of amusement but as a social issue worthy of debate. As Japan was facing a post-crash economic and social reckoning, including in the role of women and other social issues, the livelihoods of Japan’s LGBTQ+ citizens joined this discussion.
This was fueled particularly by a Japanese magazine known as CREA’s special edition on LGBTQ+ issues published in February 1991, titled Gay Renaissance, that ushered in a wave of publications exploring the problems facing Japan’s LGBTQ+ population, typically for an assumed cisgender and heterosexual audience. It was at this time also that TV dramas exploring same-sex attraction and issues facing LGBTQ+ people began to appear with shows like That Time My Heart Was Stolen, while changes in legislation made gender confirmation surgery legal in 1996 under limited circumstances.
Media was influential at shifting the narrative on these issues, increasing awareness and understanding of the circumstances faced by people in these communities. A major example of the impact of mass media can be seen with the sixth season of the long-running TV J-Drama 3-nen B-gumi Kinpachi-Sensei, a show that by the time it premiered in 2001 had cemented itself in Japanese pop culture for decades since its first season aired in 1979. The character of Kinpachi Sakamoto, played by Tetsuya Takeda, had become somewhat of a national teacher through stories of leading his class to graduation. Through the lens of a classroom environment, each season and special would cover social topics like teenage suicide, poverty, exam pressure, and more while educating his class, and in turn the nation, on these issues.
In this sixth season of the show, one of the central characters was Tsurumoto Nao (played by Aya Ueto), a trans man whose storyline centered on experiences of dealing with gender dysphoria, family acceptance over his identity, as well as the legal, medical, and social barriers to transitioning. This season proved to be many people’s first encounter with the hurdles facing trans people in Japanese society (the storyline’s production was assisted by Torai Masae, a Japanese author and trans man themselves). Through this storyline and an end-of-season lecture that noted that there was no way for trans people to legally change their gender at the time, the show further fueled a nationwide discussion on trans rights.
While the law passed is far from perfect and is particularly outdated today because of the restrictions and requirements, as well as the use of terminology that refers to transgender identity as a disorder, these discussions led to the passing of the Act on Special Cases in Handling Gender Status for Persons With Gender Identity Disorder that allowed for legal gender changes. This was passed partially thanks to the conversations that occurred following Kinpachi-sensei’s premiere.
But what does all this have to do with modern portrayals of Japanese LGBTQ+ issues in films?
What should be noted at this time is that a majority of the portrayals of LGBTQ+ issues in Japanese media came through books that were published on the topic or TV dramas. However, even as more TV dramas were produced that featured LGBTQ+ characters whether in tangential or central roles, such as 2008’s Last Friends or 2015’s Transit Girls, few Japanese movies made LGBTQ+ characters the stars of their films, or even gave them an appearance within any stories.
Movies that are produced on these topics, because of the perceived risk involved with fronting a major movie with an LGBTQ+ character or cast member, are primarily indie productions. One of Japanese director Eiji Uchida’s early movies was a lesbian drama known as Topless (2008), while another example of a film about queer relationships from this time would be Kakera: A Piece of Our Lives. Both were low-budget independent films, yes, but they were also more intimate films that centered on the lives of LGBTQ+ people in modern Japan.
You can find more recent examples, too, in films such as Close-Knit. While perhaps best described as a mid-size production with the backing of PARCO and others, this movie centered on an 11-year-old girl named Tomo Ogawa who is abandoned by her mother and goes to live with her uncle and their girlfriend Makio. Makio is trans, and the movie follows this found family as they grow closer by being together, even if they sometimes encounter issues in their lives from people who may not be as accepting of Makio as Tomo and her uncle are.
The film earned awards and plaudits at various film festivals around the world while also screening and winning a Special Jury Award at the Berlin International Film Festival. In its opening week, the film reached 8th place at the Japanese box office, a minor commercial success.
Yet on occasions where Japanese movies are produced that center LGBTQ+ characters, they can often lean into a degree of fantasy that sanitizes them as a piece of effective queer representation. Rather, this could best be described as something akin to the ‘LGBTQ+ as spectacle’ seen before the gay boom.
Ossan’s Love started as a TV special in 2016 that played with boys-love tropes by telling the story of Soichi Haruta, an office worker whose male boss and roommate suddenly confesses his feelings for him. The special was popular enough to spawn its own TV series in 2018 before a film adaptation, Ossan’s Love: Love or Dead, was released in August 2019. This was a major hit, eventually grossing over 2.6 billion yen to become the 12th heights-grossing Japanese-produced film of 2019. However, none of this should be celebrated as strong LGBTQ+ representation.
The central appeal of the series is the male-male romance between Haruta and his boss, Musashi Kurosawa, with the decision being made to avoid portraying the potential conflicts that may face a same-sex couple in Japan. The resulting story is a romantic comedy-drama that feels detached from reality and fetishizes the male-male relationship for the appeal of an assumed female audience. The show leans into this with the choice of popular male actors with large female fanbases to play the male love interests.
In turn, their relationship and the bumps they face along the way follow the same narrative steps as a typical romantic drama between two members of the opposite sex that doesn’t take into account how societal pressures, expectations, as well as internalized homophobia and fear of judgement, result in same-sex relationships taking on a very different dynamic and direction to that of straight relationships. It’s not representative, nor does it encourage the audience to consider LGBTQ+ relationships and audiences beyond the boundaries of the show.
The reality is that there are currently two extremes when it comes to LGBTQ+ representation in Japanese cinema: either you will find these characters represented in smaller movie productions that don’t have a large impact on Japanese entertainment because of only being consumed by small audiences of people but should still be lauded as strong representation, or they are larger productions that may not necessarily be produced for or about LGBTQ+ people and characters.
There is one exception: 2020’s Midnight Swan, the recent Japan Academy Prize-winning film that was a runaway indie success. This reached far larger audiences than was initially anticipated and tells a more down-to-earth and realistic story of a trans woman named Nagisa who begins to look after a girl named Ichika. Yet this film, from its controversial ending that was flagged by Japanese medical professionals and trans advocates for its inaccuracies, falls into an issue that perpetuates LGBTQ+ movies of all sizes, even beyond the borders of Japan: Japan isn’t letting people from these communities tell their own stories.
Part of the problem is that there are few LGBTQ+ creators in Japan, and even fewer can tell their own stories. Often, such movies are small-budget features even on the scale of indie movie production such as 2018’s Until Rainbow Dawn, an incredibly low budget that centers on two deaf lesbian women and is based on director Mika Amai’s own experiences. Furthermore, when it comes to trans characters, the portrayal of trans women by male actors (like in Close-Knit and Midnight Swan) and vice versa (including the groundbreaking 3-nen B-gumi Kinpachi-sensei), this casting decision perpetuates the idea that trans people are not truly the gender that they claim and can hurt efforts to improve the rights of trans people by invalidating their gender.
Without steps being taken to improve LGBTQ+ representation in Japanese cinema, progress in the medium has remained mostly stagnant since the 1990s. There is growing support for issues such as same-sex marriage across Japan even without media sharing and centering their experiences, but even the wishes of many for legal marriage and representation, or representation in media that films like Midnight Swan show there is a market for, isn’t resulting in more LGBTQ+ stories being told. Nor is it improving their protection under the law, as ruling LDP lawmakers in Japan continue to block LGBTQ+ legislation.
There are still great Japanese LGBTQ+ movies being made. It’s just a shame that, even when these movies are being produced, problems are holding these movies back from truly representing the communities they claim to support and feature. Meanwhile, for those who may be questioning their gender or sexuality, as well as cisgender and heterosexual people who want to support movies featuring LGBTQ+ characters, there remain few options.
Film Flashback: his (Rikiya Imaizumi, 2020)
Rikiya Imaizumi’s his is one of the best Japanese LGBTQ+ films in recent years, thanks to the tender and considerate manner through which it discusses same-sex romance.
Shun and Nagisa were in a happy relationship with one another in university before Nagisa suddenly tells him near the end of their time at university that he can’t see a life together with him, causing them to break up and drift apart. Shun eventually settles into a life in the rural Japanese countryside but is unable to fully move on from their relationship even after many years have passed. Then, suddenly, Nagisa appears at his door, bringing with him his 6-year-old daughter, Sora.
Having watched several LGBTQ+ films in recent years that tread in realism and end in tragedy or the couple being forced or drifting apart is what makes this film about two men reconciling their years apart with a child and forming a new life together so refreshing and heart-warming. It’s not that this film doesn’t engage with realism as we see the rumors spreading through the rural village about their relationship and the problems Nagisa has with his divorce, but the film is ultimately a celebration of their relationship and closeness. The love between Shun and Nagisa, and love for Sora.
Shun and Nagisa’s relationship, and indeed many of the relationships found throughout the film, are defined by second chances. While both of them had been in a healthy and happy relationship for multiple years, the pressures of conforming to a heteronormative society until it became too much is what drives Nagisa to end their initial relationship. The movie uses their growing closeness through the film to point a focus on how societal expectations play a major role in holding back LGBTQ+ people while making the distinct observation that tradition is a major factor holding back social and legal recognition for LGBTQ+ people.
Even the messy divorce that punctuates the film’s B plot manages to avoid falling into tropes of putting LGBTQ+ rights on trial despite the court proceedings resulting in a vindictive legal matter that attempts to weaponise Nagisa’s homosexuality against his ability to care for Sora. This is never condoned, however, and the film challenges these preconceptions by showing how much he cares for Sora and how their relationship is conducive to raising her in a healthy and loving environment.
It’s the hope of acceptance for their relationship and the love shared by many of the characters in this film that makes this such a wonderful experience from start to finish. A path towards a future of normalizing same-sex parenting in Japan is laid through the happiness and relatively uneventful nature of their life in the countryside. Even if the film’s lack of conflict, particularly in their rural town, could easily be perceived as idealistic, it’s an idealism rooted in a potential reality you want to root for as the audience and driven by Sora’s naïve love for her parents and new family.
Imaizumi’s his is a carefully crafted experience built on love and acceptance first and foremost, and it’s this that makes the film so engaging. While rather slow and easygoing for much of its 2-hour runtime, this is to the film’s benefit as we become a part of the fabric of their town and follow their routine and relationship. Even if it may sound somewhat cheesy, through the relationships that grow between Nagisa, Shun and Sora, love wins.
his was recently screened digitally in the UK as part of the UK Japan Touring Film Programme 2021.
That brings us to the end of the latest ‘Your Japanese Film Insight’. As ever, you can find a complete list of all previous articles in this series and the films recommended as part of this column over on Letterboxd.
Are there any films you want to see discussed in the future? Contact me directly on Twitter @socialanigirl !