Gender bending in movies is usually a cue for comedy, especially when taken to more fantastic extremes, as when Debbie Reynolds plays a womanizer reincarnated as a woman in Vincente Minnelli’s “Goodbye Charlie” (1964) or Satomi Kobayashi and Toshinori Omi play teens who switch bodies and minds in Nobuhiko Obayashi’s 1982 film “Tenkosei (Exchange Students).”
Shoko Kimura’s “Koi ni Itaru Yamai (The End of Puberty),” which screened in the Forum section of the Berlin Film Festival this year, does work strenuously for laughs, but for all the manga-esque screeching and mugging and jumping in and out of closets, it also wants to say something serious about sexual identity and gender roles. Are we ultimately defined by what’s between our legs, or can we transcend that in our search for love? Can opposite-sex couples really meld into a unisexual one, as Plato once philosophized?
This is a heavy assignment for a first feature about a bubbly teenager with a crush on her nerdy high school biology teacher, but Kimura, who both scripted and directed “The End of Puberty,” avoids up-front morals and messages, preferring to make her points more dramatically, imaginatively and strangely.
The teen, Tsubura (Miwako Wagatsuma), lovingly notes the ticks of her teacher, Madoka (Yoichiro Saito), in her biology class notebook, from the way he runs his hand in frustration through his untamed thicket of hair to his habit of biting his thumb when on the verge of exploding.
Truth be told, Madoka is an excruciatingly shy wuss who can no more control a class of bored teenagers than fly to the moon. But Tsubura more than equals him in eccentricity, ingesting preservatives to keep her body from decaying after death and drawing manga of her and Madoka as a couple or having sex — but with the relevant organs reversed or with their bodies merging like two curvy Lego blocks.
One day Tsubura gaily invades Madoka’s school office, where he is stolidly grading papers, and proceeds to seduce him, in a scene interspersed with flash cuts of her suggestive drawings, but otherwise unerotic. When the flying papers settle, Madoka discovers, to his shock and horror, that he and Tsubura have exchanged private parts. That is, her odd little fantasy has come true.
With his male identity vanished and his career under threat, Madoka decides to retreat with Tsubura to his vacant family home in the countryside to consider his situation, and to pray for a miracle. Tsubura, on the other hand, is hoping that this new proximity will bring about a closer bonding, even though the traumatized Madoka retches at her every advance.
Meanwhile, her best friend, the cool-headed En (Aimi Satsukawa), is fending off Maru (Shota Sometani), her hot-blooded if painfully virginal boyfriend, and wondering where Tsubura has disappeared to. En, it turns out, is not only worried about her pal’s well-being, but jealous of Madoka; she wants Tsubura all to herself, and not only in a friendly way.
The film’s theme of age-inappropriate love is not new: The 1993 hit “Koko Kyoshi (High School Teacher),” which was based on a controversial TBS drama series, also told a story about a male teacher’s affair with a female student. But Kimura’s approach, which frames Tsubura and Madoka’s relationship in terms of breaking down barriers and coming of age rather than their succumbing to the stirrings of forbidden passion, is completely her own.
As Tsubura, newcomer Wagatsuma is so gosh-darn perky and quirky, if comically coquettish, that her embrace of the flummoxed Madoka is more an expression of wacky youthful exuberance than a sexually troubled psyche. Also, as Madoka, veteran Saito spends much of the film’s first hour in a state of gibbering panic that tests your patience, but signals the opposite of icky arousal. Neither he nor Wagatsuma, however, play drag parodies of their characters’ new physical sexualities; Tsubura and Madoka are somewhat like computers that have been installed with new hardware, but still retain their original operating systems.
Satsukawa as the mature-beyond-her-years, sexually frank En and Sometani as the irrepressibly horny Maru ably serve as the film’s reality principles. In fact, they could have anchored a credible alternative film that loses the strained sex-change conceit and explores the actualities of adolescent sexual identity — gay, straight or otherwise.
Humans, after all, are not machines with interchangeable parts, but living creatures for which a sudden involuntary switch of organs would be like half-finished sex-reassignment surgery, performed without informed consent. Better to come back as Debbie Reynolds circa 1964 — and learn to enjoy life on the other side.