La Maison de Himiko (メゾン・ド・ヒミコ, Isshin Inudo, 2005)

la-maison-de-himikoIn Japan’s rapidly ageing society, there are many older people who find themselves left alone without the safety net traditionally provided by the extended family. This problem is compounded for those who’ve lived their lives outside of the mainstream which is so deeply rooted in the “traditional” familial system. La Maison de Himiko (メゾン・ド・ヒミコ) is the name of an old people’s home with a difference – it caters exclusively to older gay men who have often become estranged from their families because of their sexuality. The proprietoress, Himiko (Min Tanaka), formerly ran an upscale gay bar in Ginza before retiring to open the home but the future of the Maison is threatened now that Himiko has contracted a terminal illness and their long term patron seems set to withdraw his support.

Haruhiko (Joe Odagiri), Himiko’s much younger lover and the manager of the home, is determined to reunite his boss with his estranged daughter, Saori (Kou Shibasaki), before it’s too late. Saori is a rather sour faced and sullen woman carrying a decades long grudge against the father who abandoned her as a child and consigned her mother to a life of misery and heartbreak, so Haruhiko’s invitations are not warmly received. Haruhiko is not the giving up type and manages to sweet talk Saori’s colleague into revealing her desperate financial situation which has her already working two jobs with a part-time stint in a combini on top of her regular work during which she finds herself looking at lucrative ads for work on sex lines. When Haruhiko offers her a well paying gig helping out at the home, she has no choice but to put her pride aside.

The exclusively male residents of La Maison de Himiko lived their lives during a time when it was almost impossible to be openly gay. Consequently many of them have been married and had children but later left their families to live a more authentic life. Unfortunately, times being what they were, this often meant that they lost contact with their sons or daughters, even if they were able to keep in touch with their ex-wives or other family members for updates. For these reasons, La Maison de Himiko provides an invaluable refuge for older men who have nowhere else to go as they enter the later stages of their lives. The home provides not only a safe space where everybody is free to be themselves but also a sense of community and interdependence.

Though the situation is much improved, it is still imperfect as the home and its residents continue to face prejudice from the outside world. Saori, still carrying the pain of her father’s rejection, views his choice as a selfish one which placed his own desires above the duty he should have felt towards his wife and child. Partly driven by her resentment, Saori has a somewhat negative view of homosexuality on arriving at the home, offering up a selection of homophobic slurs, and is slow to warm to the residents. Gradually getting to know her father again and through her experiences at the home, her attitude slowly changes until she finds herself physically defending her new found friend when he’s set upon by a drunken former colleague who publicly shames him in a nightclub.

The home is also plagued by a gang of bratty kids who often leave homophobic graffiti scrawled across the front wall. One of their early tricks involves throwing a bunch of firecrackers under a parked car to stun Saori so they can hold her captive for a bit because they have really a lot of questions about lesbians and they wondered if she was one, though one wonders what they’d do if someone answered them seriously. Predictably, the leader of the bratty kids may be engaging in these kinds of behaviours because he’s confused himself. Thankfully La Maison de Himiko is an open and forgiving place, welcoming the boy inside to offer support to a young man still trying to figure himself out.

This is not a coming out story, but it is a plea for tolerance and acceptance through which Saori herself begins to blossom, easing her anger and resentment and sending her trademark scowl away with them. One of her closest friends at the home is a shy man who lived most of his life in the closet but makes the most beautiful embroidered clothes and elegant dresses. Sadly, the most lovely of them is reserved for his funeral – he’s too ashamed to wear it alive because he doesn’t like the way he looks in the mirror. Eventually he and Saori end up having an unconventional fancy dress party in which they both break out of their self imposed prisons culminating in a joyous group dance routine in a local nightclub.

Joe Odagiri turns in another nuanced, conflicted performance as the increasingly confused Haruhiko who finds himself oddly drawn to Saori’s sullen charms though the film thankfully avoids “turning” its male lead for an uncomfortable romantic conclusion. A young man among old ones, Haruhiko is somewhat out of place but has his own empty spaces. Revealing to Saori that he lives only for desire he betrays a nagging fear of his own emptiness and journey into a possibly lonely old age. Nevertheless, La Maison de Himiko is generally bright and cheerful despite some of the pain and sadness which also reside there. A warm and friendly tribute to the power of community, La Maison de Himiko is a hymn in praise of tolerance and inclusivity which, as it makes plain, bloom from the inside out.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

And the fantastic dance sequence from the film

Plus the original version of the song (Mata Au Hi Made) by Kiyohiko Ozaki

A Touch of Fever (二十才の微熱, Ryosuke Hashiguchi, 1993)

Touch of FeverRyosuke Hashiguchi’s debut feature A Touch of Fever (二十才の微熱, Hatachi no Binetsu) proved a surprise box office hit in Japan and is also credited for helping to bring male homosexuality into the mainstream. A no-budget movie shot on 16mm, A Touch of Fever is the story of two ordinary boys each going about their everyday lives whilst also beginning to understand themselves in terms of their sexualities, mirroring each other perfectly in their inner confusion.

Tatsuru is a college student by day, but he spends his nights working at Pinocchio’s where he entertains male customers looking for some no strings action with a disinterested young man. Among the other youngish guys working at the club is Shin who is actually still in high school. Shin is out to his parents, but they haven’t taken it well so he’s couch surfing, leading to him to ask Tatsuru if he could temporarily move in with him. Along with all of the practical problems this may raise, Shin has something of a crush on his older colleague, but Tatsuru is filled with doubts about many things and his apartment is in no way big enough to contain this particular elephant in the room.

Tatsuru is about as detached as they come. He claims that he can separate love and sex and that for him his work is just a mechanical action that he happens to be pretty good at. The first client we see him with interrogates him about his non-compensatory love life, assuming that he must have a girlfriend. Tatsuru gives a non-committal answer about whether he also sleeps with women which offers the first indication of his slight resistance to the idea of being gay even if he has no problem earning a living through sleeping with men. Throughout the film he also conducts a parallel (platonic, if fliratious) relationship with an older female student, though when he decides to try and take things further she more or less shuts him down explaining that she’s confused about her feelings for him – she wants him in her life, but probably not in a romantic way. As if to underline the point, an attendant begins to spray cleaning fluid over the passenger side window of the car Tatsuru is sitting in, effectively painting him out of the picture.

Shin, on the other hand, is very clear about his sexuality but less so about the idea of selling it for money. Uncomfortable with the atmosphere at the club, Shin has decided he only wants to do it with people he likes, as impractical as that may turn out to be. What Shin wants is romance, but that’s exactly what Tatsuru is currently unable to acknowledge. When taken to task by one of Shin’s female friends, Tatsuru offers a series of justifications about different kinds of love but remains rational and closed down. At the moment it appears something may happen between the pair, it’s Shin who ultimately can’t follow through. Whether due to “chickening out” as his friend accuses, a lack of belief in his object of affection, or simple vulnerability, Shin is not quite ready to acknowledge his true feelings either.

Both boys have also become estranged from their families and particularly with their fathers. Tatsuru’s father leaves gruff answerphone messages and then when he finally gets through, suggests that his son is a drain on his resources that he could well do without. Having left Tatsuru’s mother for another woman, dad is now cash strapped – so much so that his new partner has had to have an abortion because of all the loans he’s taken out for Tatsuru’s fees. The final parting blow is to say that (contrary to the suggestion of a complete divorce between father and son) Tatsuru is now the sole heir of the Shinomori name which is yet another burden for guy who may be gay and therefore may not necessarily be looking to pass that name on. Shin’s father had something of an apoplexy when he found out his son was gay and threatened to have him sent away to the self defence force for some “toughening” up, going so far to trample all over Shin’s dreams of becoming a fashion designer and leading him to leave home at such a young age.

Hashiguchi’s first feature is his most melancholy but also oddly innocent. A theme which recurs throughout his career – that love is sad and ultimately impossible, rears its head during the film’s final scene in which Hashiguchi himself plays a sinister customer. This uncomfortably long sequence which breaks with the formalist camera movements of the the earlier part in favour of destabilising, unbroken handheld, acts as the climax of the film as the pair are once again symmetrically opposed. Tatsuru likes things impersonal but this guy wants to talk, whereas Shin craves connection but finds the customer unpleasant in his wheedling, direct and almost forceful approach. “You wouldn’t know the pain of being unable to speak out about how you really feel”, says the customer, oblivious to the obvious subtext. This long, strange, and uncomfortable encounter does at least lead both boys into the centre ground, making each clearer both about themselves independently and about whatever it is that exists between them.

Contrary to the customer’s assertion about the impossibility of true connection, the film ends on a note of hope as the boys walk home together with a little more lightness in their steps. When Shin enquires how much Tatsuru was paid for something that he previously disapproved of but seems to have got over now, he tells him he’s underselling himself and ought to value himself more. Tatsuru says he’ll bear that in mind – that has, after all, been the problem all along. In one sense, the “fever” has broken – a weight has been lifted, leaving both boys freer to go about their lives with more clarity and less angst. Perhaps it isn’t all so sad and impossible after all.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Nobody to Watch Over Me (誰も守ってくれない, Ryoichi Kimizuka, 2009)

Nobody to Watch Over MeWhen a crime has been committed, it’s important to remember that there may be secondary victims whose lives will be destroyed even if they themselves had no direct involvement in the case itself. This is even more true in the tragic case that person who is responsible is themselves a child with parents and siblings still intent on looking forward to a life that their son or daughter will now never lead. This isn’t to place them on the same level as bereaved relatives, but simply to point out the killer’s family have also lost a child who they have every right to grieve for, though their grief will also be tinged with guilt and shame.

Nobody to Watch Over Me (誰も守ってくれない, Dare mo Mamotte Kurenai) takes the example of one particular case in which an 18 year old boy has brutally stabbed two little girls in a park and then returned home as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. After the boy is arrested, his family is caught up in a firestorm of police and press interest, barely able pause and come to terms with the surreal events that are taking place. No sooner has their son been dragged off in handcuffs than a troupe from the family court arrives with pre-printed documents which will arrange for a divorce and remarriage between the parents so that they can revert to the wife’s maiden name in an attempt to avoid the stigma of being related to a child killer. After being bamboozled into signing a number of papers with barely any explanation the family is then split up for questioning and taken to separate locations to try and throw off the press.

Grizzled detective Katsuura (Koichi Sato) is charged with looking after the murderer’s younger sister, Saori (Mirai Shida) – a 15 year old high school student. Katsuura is enduring some familial conflict of his own and was due to be taking a family holiday to try and work things out, so he’s a little distracted and put out about needing to shield this quite uncooperative teenager from the baying masses. He’s also suffering a degree of PTSD from a traumatic incident some years previously in which a case he was involved in went horribly wrong resulting in the death of a small boy. Understandably, Saori is in a state of shock, left alone with strangers to try and cope with this extremely stressful situation and unwilling to betray her brother by submitting to the police’s constant demands for information.

The police themselves aren’t always the benign and and comforting presence one might hope for on such an occasion as Katsuura’s superior has one eye on a possible promotion if he can exploit this high profile case for all its worth and is intent on pressing this innocent teenage girl as if she were some kind of war criminal. The family are treated with a degree of suspicion and contempt, as if they were directly or indirectly complicit in the violence created by their son or brother.

In actuality, there may be a grain of truth in this as the film also begins to offer some social critique of the modern family and the pressures placed on young people in the contemporary world. When questioned about their son, the mother remains more or less silent but the father angrily replies that he raised his son “strictly”. The family had high expectations and didn’t take academic failure lightly. From middle school onwards, they kept their son at home to study allowing him little outlet for anything else and, it seems, he was sometimes physically disciplined for a lack of progress.

Katsuura’s family is under threat too, perhaps placed under pressure following Katsuura’s personal disintegration over having been prevented in his attempts to save the life of the small boy some years previously or just from the constant insecurities involved being the family of a policeman whose working schedule is necessarily unpredictable. Though originally becoming fed up with Saori’s lack of cooperation, Katsuura eventually develops a protective relationship with her perhaps because she reminds him of his own teenage daughter. Given that the police are to some degree her enemy as they are the ones that have taken away her brother and separated her from her parents, it’s not surprising that she doesn’t immediately warm to Katsuura but after being betrayed by someone she believed was a true ally, she finally understands that he is firmly on her side and trying to protect her from a very real series of threats.

The modern world is shown up for all of its voyeuristic obsession with the horrifying and the taboo. The family are swarmed by press but it’s the internet that becomes the major aggressor as it publishes not only the boy’s real name, but even his parents’ address and the addresses of other people involved with the case. Self proclaimed social justice crusaders react like parasites glued to bulletin boards trading information on notorious crimes for a kind of internet fame, not caring about the facts of the case or that there are real people involved here who are already grieving. Taking the “I blame the parents” mentality to its extreme, even more distant members of the killer’s family are expected to trot out an apology for the cameras even though it’s really nothing to do with them and isn’t going to do anyone any good anyway.

Kimizuka shoots the first part of the action with a breathless intensity, mimicking hand held, on the ground news reporting to convey just how frightening and disorientating this must be for anyone unlucky enough to be caught up in a media storm. The use of choral music and occasional melodramatic touches near the end perhaps undermine the film’s emotional power which never quite coalesces in the way it seems to want to. However, Nobody to Watch Over Me is a fascinating and rich exploration of the public’s obsession with true crime stories coupled with an extreme tendency towards victim blaming and the need to hold to account those close to the perpetrator of a crime even if they had little to do with it themselves. Frightening yet hopeful in equal measure, Nobody to Watch Over Me offers scant comfort but does at least begin to ask the question.


The region 3 Hong Kong DVD release of Nobody to Watch Over Me includes English subtitles.

English subtitled teaser trailer:

Gentle 12 (12人の優しい日本人, Shun Nakahara, 1991)

161_img_1_oAs you might be able to tell from its title, Gentle 12 (12人の優しい日本人, Juninin no Yasashii Nihonjin) is a loose Japanese parody of the stage play 12 Angry Men notably filmed by Sidney Lumet back in 1957. The Japanese title literally translates as “12 Kindly Japanese Guys” and the film takes the same premise of twelve jurors debating the verdict in a murder case which was previously thought fairly straightforward. This time our jury is a little more balanced as it’s not just guys in the room and even the men are of a more diverse background.

In contrast to the American version, each of our twelve jurors is immediately inclined to acquit and some of them are even walking out the door before one juror, Juror no. 2, raises an objection. He thinks the defendant may be guilty and they should at least talk about it a little more. Irritated, the jurors walk back into the room and enquire why he’s had this sudden change of heart. They will, of course, be entitled to some refreshments now, so what’s the harm in hanging round to talk things through. Eventually people start to switch sides, some in confusion or just wanting to get it over with, but gradually each is exposed as having a personal reason for feeling the way they do that has relatively little to do with the facts of the case.

In contrast to the original stage play, the first instinct of the Japanese jurors is to acquit. No one wants to believe the defendant, who is the mother of a young child accused of pushing her violent ex-husband into the path of an oncoming truck, could have wilfully planned such an outrageous crime in advance. Whatever the facts are, she has clearly suffered enough and her child certainly doesn’t deserve to be orphaned through having its mother taken away by over zealous seekers of “justice”. Nevertheless Juror no.2 doesn’t believe her story and thinks there’s at least the possibility that she pushed him deliberately if not having engineered the entire situation in someway.

As in the American version, they proceed to debate the facts of the case in detail but while some change sides after thinking over the arguments, others are rigidly committed to their positions. Of those in the not guilty camp, some of them can’t quite articulate their reasoning beyond “it’s just a feeling” which proves particularly infuriating to Juror No. 2. The US version placed more emphasis on societal prejudices with personal ones largely backing them up – i.e. they took against the defendant in that case because he was a poor boy from the slums so in their middle class, majority culture minds it was natural that he was guilty. Here, there’s a great deal of sympathy for the defendant who seems to have experienced a lot of misfortune but continues to try and do the best for her young son.

Even so, some take against her because she reminds them of past misfortune of their own, or take against the victim because even as a thoroughly unpleasant man he’d managed to attract himself a pretty wife and son only to misuse and abandon them. Some believe themselves to be excellent judges of character or to be good at spotting a liar only to have their opinions about themselves undermined when scrutinised. The revelations here are personal rather than societal, but the central fact remains that you can’t really ever know or prove what happened and even having witnessed something with your own eyes doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve totally understood the situation fully. Much of the juror’s deliberations consist of creating a narrative out of scattered facts and exercises in supposition. In the end, it more or less comes down to gut feeling anyway.

Originating as a stage play and scripted by Japanese comedy master Koki Mitani, Gentle 12 has its moments of humour and never really takes itself too seriously. What else could you say about a case which seems to hinge on the smallest size of pizza available from a delivery company and how someone might say the words “ginger ale” when really, really angry. The “kindly” jurors also have a wonderful tendency towards tolerance or towards restrained anger that sees them getting quite annoyed whilst trying not to lose their tempers in exasperation or just calmly restating their arguments (or lack thereof) and infuriating everyone else in the process. Neatly filmed by Shun Nakahara, Gentle 12 might not have the same level of cultural bite as its original work suggests but it does prove an enjoyably absurd confined space drama which offers a few cultural revelations of its own.