The Cherry Orchard (櫻の園, Shun Nakahara, 1990)

Cherry Orchard 1990 posterChekhov’s The Cherry Orchard is more about the passing of an era and the fates of those who fail to swim the tides of history than it is about transience and the ever-present tragedy of the death of every moment, but still there is a commonality in the symbolism. Shun Nakahara’s The Cherry Orchard (櫻の園, Sakura no Sono) is not an adaptation of Chekhov’s play but of Akimi Yoshida’s popular 1980s shojo manga which centres on a drama group at an all girls high school. Alarm bells may be ringing, but Nakahara sidesteps the usual teen angst drama for a sensitively done coming of age tale as the girls face up to their liminal status and prepare to step forward into their own new era.

The annual production of The Cherry Orchard has become a firm fixture at Oka Academy – even more so this year as it marks an important anniversary for the school. Stage manager Kaori (Miho Miyazawa) has come in extra early to prep for the performance, but also because she’s enjoying a covert assignation with her boyfriend whom she is keen to get rid of before anyone else turns up and catches them at it. Hearing the door, Kaori bundles him out the back way before the show’s director, Yuko (Hiroko Nakajima), who is also playing a maid arrives looking a little different – she’s had a giant perm.

Yuko’s hair is very much against school regulations but she figures they’ll get over it. Fortunately or unfortunately, Yuko’s hairdo is the least of their problems. Another girl who is supposed to be playing a leading role, Noriko (Miho Tsumiki), has been caught smoking and hanging out with delinquents from another school. She and her parents are currently in the headmaster’s office, and everyone is suddenly worried. The girls’ teacher, Ms. Satomi (Mai Okamoto), is going in to bat for them but it sounds like the play might be cancelled at the last-minute just because the strict school board don’t think it appropriate to associate themselves with such a disappointing student.

The drama club acts as a kind of safe space for the girls. Oka Academy is, to judge by the decor and uniforms, a fairly high-class place with strict rules and ideas about the way each of the young ladies should look, feel, and act. Their ages differ, but they’re all getting towards the age when they know whether or not those ideas are necessarily ones they wish to follow. As if to bring out the rigid nature of their school life, The Cherry Orchard is preformed every single year (classic plays get funded more easily than modern drama) but at least, as one commentator puts it, Ms. Satomi’s production is one of the most “refreshing” the school has ever seen, perhaps echoing the new-found freedoms these young women are beginning to explore.

Free they are and free they aren’t as the girls find themselves experiencing the usual teenage confusions but also finding the courage to face them. Yuko’s hair was less about self-expression than it was about catching the attention of a crush – not a boy, but a fellow student, Chiyoko (Yasuyo Shirashima). Chiyoko, by contrast is pre-occupied with her leading role in the play. Last year, in a male role, she excelled but Ranevskaya is out of her comfort zone. Tall and slim, Chiyoko has extreme hangups around her own femininity and would rather have taken any other male role than the female lead.

Yuko keeps her crush to herself but unexpectedly bonds with delinquent student Noriko who has correctly guessed the direction of Yuko’s desires. Sensitively probing the issue, using and then retreating from the “lesbian” label, Noriko draws a partial confession from her classmate but it proves a bittersweet experience. Predictably enough, Noriko’s “delinquency” is foregrounded by her own more certain sexuality. Noriko’s crush on the oblivious Yuko looks set to end in heartbreak, though Nakahara is less interested in the salaciousness of a teenage love triangle than the painfulness of unrequited, unspoken love which leaves Noriko hovering on the sidelines – wiser than the other girls, but paying heavily for it.

Chekhov’s play famously ends with the sound of falling trees, heralding the toppling of an era but with a kind of sadness for the destruction of something beautiful which could not be saved. Nakahara’s film ends with cherry blossoms blowing in through an open window in an empty room. The spectre of endings hangs heavily, neatly echoed by Ms. Satomi’s argument to the promise that the play will go ahead next year with the cry that next year these girls will be gone. This is a precious time filled with fun and friendship in which the drama club affords the opportunity to figure things out away from the otherwise strict and conformist school environment. Nakahara films with sympathetic naturalism, staying mainly within the rehearsal room with brief trips to the roof or empty school corridors capturing these late ‘80s teens for all of their natural exuberance and private sorrows.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

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)