In Competition for the Mulberry Award for Best Screenplay
Japan, 2022, 120’, Japanese
Directed by: Matsunaga Daishi
Screenplay: Matsunaga Daishi, Inukai Kyoko; based on the original novel Egoist by Takayama Makoto
Photography (color): Ikeda Naoya
Editing: Hayano Ryo
Art Direction: Sato Nozomu
Music: Sebu Hiroko
Producers: Akashi Mayumi, Yokoyama Rampei, Kino Yoshi
Cast: Suzuki Ryohei, Miyazawa Hio, Agawa Sawako
There was a time, not long ago, when gay and lesbian characters in Hollywood films were colored in various shades of badness. (Google “queer-coded Disney villains” and pages of hits will appear.)
In the Japanese film industry, LGBTQ characters have edged closer to the mainstream in recent years, though not often as moral exemplars.
The title of Matsunaga Daishi’s groundbreaking new film Egoist, which is based on the eponymous semi-autobiographical novel by Takayama Makoto, hints at more of the same when a gay fashion magazine editor (Suzuki Ryohei) turns his hot personal trainer (Miyazawa Hio) into his compensated lover.
The meaning of the title is more elusive than it first appears, however.
Kosuke, a 30-something editor, falls in love with his boyish trainer, Ryuta, soon after engaging his professional services – and falling into bed with him. When Ryuta abruptly breaks it off, confessing that he has been a sex worker since his teens and cryptically telling his older employer that their relationship “hurts,” Kosuke is dumbstruck.
Up to this point, the film has been explicitly erotic – thus its R-15 rating in Japan – but it undergoes a reset following the out-of-the-blue breakup. Through Matsunaga’s moving and intimate direction, Suzuki’s committed performance of Kosuke’s agony is raw and immediate.
Then Kosuke has an idea: Ryuta is barely making ends meet because he is supporting his ailing single mom (a wonderfully understated Agawa Sawako), so Kosuke offers a monthly stipend that allows him to quit his side hustle. After much hesitation, Ryuta accepts, while taking on two menial jobs. Kosuke also becomes a familiar and welcome presence at the apartment Ryuta shares with his mother, a birdlike woman with a kindly manner but knowing eyes. Paradise is regained.
Something happens, however, that ends this idyll and tests Kosuke’s character further. Here is where the title’s meaning becomes clearer: Kosuke, we learn, grew up in a conservative rural community and lost his understanding mother at age 14. He later fled to Tokyo and developed a hard outer shell, but the loneliness of his early life never left him. By acquiring a substitute family in Ryuta and his mother, he can ease his own pain. So is his altruism toward Ryuta a cover for his true motives? Is it all just about healing himself? In answering these questions, the film does not stint on emotion, but it feels earned without a condescending “gays can also be good” message.
In the West, straight stars such as Tom Hanks and Robin Williams were once applauded for portraying gay characters, but some now argue that such roles should be played by LGBTQ actors for more authentic representation. But casting Kosuke and Ryuta with anything but straight (or perhaps closeted) name actors would have been next to impossible in Japan – Japanese dramatic actors who are out and have name recognition are few and far between (though it’s worth noting that Egoist had an “LGBTQ+ inclusive director” on the set).
A star who has often played macho types, Suzuki has stepped out of his comfort zone in Egoist. However, he is more deserving of kudos for making his character fully and credibly human. Kosuke may not be perfect, but he’s closer to the angels than to Cruella de Vil.
Born in Tokyo in 1974, Matsunaga Daishi worked as an actor before making his directorial debut with the 2011 documentary Pyuupiru. In 2015 he released his first fiction feature, Pieta in the Toilet, which screened at festivals in Japan and abroad while winning awards, including a Best New Director Award for Matsunaga at the Yokohama Film Festival. He followed-up with documentary and anthology projects, with his next fiction feature being the 2018 Hanalei Bay, a drama based on a Murakami Haruki short story. His latest film, Egoist, premiered in competition at last year’s Tokyo International Film Festival.
2011 – Pyuupiru
2015 – Pieta in the Toilet
2018 – Hanalei Bay
2022 – Pure Japanese
2022 – Egoist