Hio Miyazawa and Ryohei Suzuki in Egoist.

Representations of queer characters in mainstream Japanese TV and film can often feel dated. Occasionally you’ll get nuance and depth (Three Stories of Love [2015], Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy [2021]), but you’re also likely to run into one-dimensional characterizations (Close-Knit [2017]) or cringe-worthy stereotyping (Masaki Sumitani’s not-so-distant “Razor Ramon Hard Gay” character).

In that context, it seems important to focus on what Daishi Matsunaga’s Egoist does well, and the pitfalls it avoids. It tells the story of two gay men living their lives in Tokyo in a way that doesn’t portray them as “special,” and that gives those men personality traits beyond their sexual orientation. It also gives one of them a community of queer friends who feel authentic. It presents sex as joyful and fun. The difficulties faced by the film’s characters are not entirely grounded in homophobia, and the characters are not presented as miserable or tormented simply because they are queer. The performances feel natural and genuine. Egoist‘s credits include an “LGBTQ+-inclusive director,” which seems to indicate that the film was actually created in consultation with members of the LGBTQ+ community. 

That’s actually…quite a lot of good things. Which might be why I was frustrated at how the film ultimately seemed to shoot itself in the foot. 

Egoist, based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Makoto Takayama, tells the story of Kosuke (Ryohei Suzuki), a wealthy gay man in his late thirties who hires a twenty-something personal trainer, Ryuta (Hio Miyazawa). There’s some flirtation and they begin a relationship, but everything is complicated by the financial gap between them (and by the fact that Ryuta has been a sex worker for years to support himself and his ill mother). Still, they make things work, even if that tension and uncertainty is always there (along with the frequent tension and uncertainty that comes with simply existing as a gay man in modern Japan). Both actors have charisma, the writing is good, and their chemistry feels real.

One thing that’s never really discussed is the fact that Kosuke’s financial support of Ryuta would seem a lot more “normal” if they were in a heterosexual relationship and Ryuta were a woman. But they’re not, and he isn’t, and so everything is a bit messier and more difficult to navigate.

Ryuta and Kosuke don’t face overt homophobia from their co-workers or family members, but it’s clear that they’re not fully out, and that they likely never will be. Kosuke’s father isn’t cruel, but he’s distant and absently badgers Kosuke about getting married—not exactly the sort of parent that a child might feel comfortable opening up to. Ryuta’s mother (Sawako Agawa, in a lovely performance) is sweet, and there are hints early on that she knows a lot more than Ryuta thinks she does, but the number of people that both men feel they can truly be themselves with is limited. Returning to his rural hometown with its unpleasant memories of bullying and loneliness, Kosuke dresses in flashy suits and sunglasses, calling clothes his “armor.” The way that both Ryuta and Kosuke must constantly check to make sure they aren’t being watched, or smile and make excuses when someone mentions marriage, drives home how exhausting it is for gay men in Japan to constantly “perform” heterosexuality.

Egoist has gotten some attention for its sex scenes, which are particularly explicit for a mainstream Japanese film starring well-known actors. (I was happy to see that the production had an intimacy coordinator, a role that’s still fairly new on Japanese film sets in 2023.) What really struck me about the sex scenes, though, was just that they were happy. It’s rare in contemporary Japanese cinema (outside of “pink” films) to see sex scenes in which both parties appear to be enjoying themselves, to see sex that focuses on pleasure rather than on one or both characters’ existential angst. Ryuta and Kosuke are hot for each other, they care for each other, and their sex scenes reflect that. The film’s platonic relationships are also warm and nicely developed.

Egoist is hamstrung, though, by a series of strange editing and cinematography choices. Shots cut away to other shots abruptly. Frequent close-ups mean that it’s often difficult to get a sense of the indoor and outdoor spaces that the characters inhabit. There’s far too much use of shaky-cam and odd angles that frequently obscure or hide one or more characters’ faces. Maybe the intent was to reveal the characters’ emotional states through camera and editing work, but for me the effect was simply distracting. Too many times I was taken out of an authentic and natural-feeling moment by a cut that happened far too early in a scene, or a closeup that made it difficult to determine exactly what the layout of a particular space was.

And then there’s the problem of the third act.


I’m aware that Egoist is based on a novel. But even if the events of the third act are present in that novel, the film’s script (by Matsunaga and Kyoko Inukai) isn’t structured in a way that makes them meaningful. In a nutshell, about an hour and twenty minutes into the film, Ryuta suddenly dies. We are never given any real explanation as to why, other than that he was always “frail” (something that his mother only mentions after his death and that is never really hinted at in the film until that moment). Ryuta’s death does provide a chance for Kosuke to exhibit more emotional depth (the scene where he repeatedly apologizes for breaking down at Ryuta’s funeral is particularly moving) and to become a sort of surrogate son for Ryuta’s mother, a relationship that’s beautifully depicted. But then things take an even more melodramatic turn when the mother suddenly announces she has cancer, leading to several sickbed scenes with Kosuke. These sudden shifts in tone arguably transform Egoist from an authentic queer love story into something closer to a TV melodrama. It’s not that queer love stories can’t also be tragic (though more than a few queer fans and creators have pushed for stories that don’t center around suffering, death, or homophobia). It’s just that this particular film doesn’t properly lay the groundwork for its third act tragedies, and the shift is jarring rather than moving. 


Again, I’ll applaud Egoist for all the things it does well. I was happy to just spend time with these characters, to watch them live their lives and experience authentic-seeming love and lust for one another. It was also refreshing to see a portrayal of a diverse group of queer male friends on screen just hanging out—teasing each other, eating, talking about sex, being drunk and silly outside a bar. The film is a step in the right direction. I just wish that it hadn’t made such distracting stylistic choices, and that it had managed to stick the landing a little better. 

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