TOKYO – Sometimes it takes a foreigner to understand other foreigners.
Born and raised in Brazil before moving to Japan at the age of 11, Eiji Uchida struggled to adjust to Japanese society as a child. Now a well-known film director, he has built a career describing the lives of his misfit comrades.
Her latest film portrays the hardships of an impoverished transgender woman and has become a rare hit for an arthouse film, especially one that portrays a marginalized sector of Japanese society.
Boosted by megastar Tsuyoshi Kusanagi as the protagonist, “Midnight Swan” has taken in over 500 million yen ($ 4.7 million) at the box office since its release a month ago.
The film shows how Nagisa, a dancer at a transgender nightclub in Tokyo, finds hope in her dark life after meeting teenage girl Ichika, a distant relative who was beaten up and kicked out of her Hiroshima home by his alcoholic mother.
While Nagisa is initially cold towards Ichika, she gradually finds sympathy for the unloved girl and helps her become a top ballerina. Nagisa makes the decision to be accepted as a woman and also to become Ichika’s “mother”.
Uchida, 49, believes that interweaving social issues and entertainment is the most effective way to get a message across to a large audience – in this case, raising awareness of the stigma many transgender people face in Japan. A recent example was of a Tokyo politician accusing the LGBT community of the country’s declining birth rate.
“The film’s focus on transgender people was the only element that was noticed right after its release,” Uchida told Nikkei Asia. “It was only recently that I started to receive comments that this is not a ‘transgender movie’ but rather the story of a mother and daughter, affection and love. Nagisa’s life. “
Sporting a pig hat and a plain T-shirt in an interview with the film’s production company, Uchida asks, “Will middle-aged men and women in a random location in the countryside watch a transgender movie? ? ” adding that “entertainment could help these people know that people lead such lives. That’s good enough for me.”
Uchida wrote the screenplay, but it is rare that such an original screenplay attracts a large audience in Japan. Blockbuster movies are usually adapted from an anime, manga, or novel.
Kusanagi – a former member of the hugely popular boy band SMAP – said earlier this month that he decided to play the role immediately after reading the script.
“I found myself crying a lot when I first read the script,” Kusanagi told reporters from the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan. “I didn’t know what my tears were for, but I felt there was beauty in those tears.”
Uchida, however, admits that he initially didn’t know how to portray a transgender protagonist. He started writing the screenplay five years before filming, gradually changing his portrayal of Nagisa as he discovered the daily trials faced by transgender people.
While writing the screenplay, Uchida says he met transgender people from all walks of life, including politicians, accountants and office workers, as well as people working in nightclubs and red light districts.
“Some people on social media are saying that ‘Midnight Swan’ involves over-staging and exaggerating discrimination against transgender people. But every scene in the film is based on my reporting and is a true story,” Uchida said.
In the movie, Ichika’s classmates laugh at Nagisa: “Hey, is that your father? Or maybe your mother? Nagisa’s mother orders her to “please cure your illness”; and he is told in a job interview: “LGBT is something all the rage these days, right?”
“Of course, it’s not natural to lump all transgender people together with one expression. And there are people who live happily,” Uchida says. “But I felt there was no silver lining anytime soon in the situation surrounding transgender people in Japan.”
Uchida co-wrote and directed episodes of last year’s hit Netflix series “The Naked Director” – a show that portrayed a director in the 1980s trying to revolutionize the porn industry in Japan. His other films, including “Lowlife Love” (2015) and “Love and Other Cults” (2017), have also focused on foreigners in various Japanese communities.
Suffering and isolation are recurring themes in Uchida’s work, and they may have stemmed from her own childhood experience.
Born in Rio de Janeiro, he attended local primary schools in Brazil before coming to live in Oita on the island of Kyushu in southern Japan at the age of 11. and he didn’t dare tell them he was from Brazil.
“It was the most difficult time of my life.… When I desperately wanted to go back to Brazil, I went to the movies,” Uchida says. “Watching movies in a movie theater allowed me to forget nasty things.”
“I was a foreigner in Japan at the time, even though I’m Japanese. My past has a lot of influence on my film production.”
His commitment to unearthing the truth comes from his 10 years as a reporter for the Japanese version of Playboy magazine.
His exterior gaze, sexuality and violence are omnipresent in his films. “Eroticism and violence have long been veiled under the name ‘culture’ in Japan,” he says.
In “Midnight Swan,” a scene shows Ichika, who wants money for her ballet lessons, and her teenage friend taking a part-time job in which some models dress in bikinis and underwear for a shoot. pictured in Tokyo’s Akihabara district – an area known for its anime, video games, and otaku culture, which caters to geeks with specific obsessions.
“There are actually so many of these events. It is just violence,” Uchida laments, adding that “Akihabara culture” lets it prevail without regulation.
“I was saved by the films. I don’t see the films as just my work, but they are more like a faith for me,” Uchida explains. “The movies changed my life. Some young viewers wrote that ‘Midnight Swan’ changed their lives.… I’m glad I made the movie.”
Uchida agrees that transgender actors should play transgender roles, but regrets that “Japanese society currently is not structured like this” and that there is a lack of space for talented transgender actors.
Uchida is now preparing to host a workshop that brings together cisgender people, whose gender identities match theirs at birth, and transgender actors.
“Someday I would like to make a movie where a transgender actor appears in an action movie, for example,” Uchida laughs.
Additional reporting by Ken Kobayashi.