For all its many attractions as a place to live, Japan can be unforgiving for anyone who’s perceived as different.

There’s a phrase that comes up repeatedly during Hikaru Toda’s “Of Love & Law”: “reading the air” (kūki o yomu). It describes the unspoken way in which people are taught to assess a situation and adjust their behavior accordingly. Though it’s meant to denote tact and consideration, what it really means is conforming — and for those who can’t (or won’t) do it, reading the air can be stifling.

This becomes clear over the course of Toda’s documentary, which took home one of the main prizes at last year’s Tokyo International Film Festival. “Of Love & Law” depicts the fragile state of individual rights in contemporary Japan, as seen through the eyes of a pair of lawyers, Kazuyuki Minami and Masafumi Yoshida, who are themselves minorities: They are an openly gay couple.

Toda first met the pair through an acquaintance, and recalls that she was struck by their openness.

“I was immediately taken by them as a couple,” she recalls. “How accepting of each other they were, how accepting of each other’s weaknesses they were.”

Running a small law firm in Osaka, the pair take on a variety of work, from divorce proceedings to crimes involving juvenile delinquents, but the three cases featured in the film all have a distinct human rights focus.

A famous client: The case of Megumi Igarashi, better known to the public as Rokudenashiko, drew international attention when she was charged with obscenity.
A famous client: The case of Megumi Igarashi, better known to the public as Rokudenashiko, drew international attention when she was charged with obscenity. | © NANMORI FILMS

One of the clients may already be familiar to international audiences: artist Megumi Igarashi, better known as Rokudenashiko, who drew international news coverage when her “vagina art” landed her in court on obscenity charges. Another is a former high school teacher, Hiroko Tsujitani, who was penalized for refusing to stand and sing the national anthem. The third case involves two “unregistered” women who have been denied legal recognition because they aren’t listed in a koseki, the archaic family registry used in Japan.

“All of that (work) is driven by a very basic belief that these people should not be in a position where they’re challenged by the law,” says Toda. The film, she explains, aims “to visualize these very obvious, hard-to-see elements — of rights, being expressed in a society where they’re not taken for granted like in the West.”

Though there are some victories along the way, “Of Love & Law” suggests that the overall situation for minorities is deteriorating. The controversial state secrets law came into force while Toda was filming, and she includes footage of a demonstration against Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s proposed constitutional revision, which threatens to curtail individual rights.

Speaking of the way she suddenly found herself persecuted for her beliefs, Tsujitani, the former teacher, cautions: “This can happen to anyone. That’s where we’re headed.”

“Yeah, it’s getting worse,” agrees Toda. “Everybody is ‘reading the air’ and it’s becoming harder and harder to be an individual, with their own freedom to think for themselves.”

Yet “Of Love & Law” makes a strong case for accepting different ways of thinking and living, as embodied by its unconventional protagonists. Minami and Yoshida come across as a genuinely loving couple, whether they’re joking, squabbling or snuggling up together in the apartment they share with a handsome long-haired cat.

When Yoshida’s teenage ward, Kazuma, is left with nowhere to live after his care home closes, the pair take him in. Later, they start thinking seriously about becoming foster parents — a challenge in a country where same-sex couples aren’t legally allowed to adopt.

“They were very keen on showing how they lived, how normal they were, in a society where they’re considered abnormal,” says Toda.

Yoshida and Minami’s considerable warmth and charisma also helped her make the film’s downbeat subject matter more engaging, without trivializing it.

“You can make a more social-issue-driven film,” she says. “But I was conscious of not wanting to make a film like that. I knew it’s not who (Yoshida and Minami) are — they’re funny, and I wanted that to come through. I wanted it to be accessible. I wanted a lot of people who wouldn’t otherwise see these films or otherwise engage with these individual topics to see them from another perspective.”

Invisible eye: Director Hikaru Toda was aware that her documentary
Invisible eye: Director Hikaru Toda was aware that her documentary ‘Of Love & Law’ should present its protagonists as the funny and loving couple that they are so the audience can see them with a fresh perspective. | JAMES HADFIELD

Toda approaches the material from an interesting perspective herself: She moved back to Japan for the first time in over 20 years to make the film, having lived in Europe since the age of 10.

“I was very aware of how Japan was portrayed in Western media — what kinds of stereotypes I was subjected to — and I really just wanted to break all of that and show individuals doing their own thing, talking about their own feelings,” she says. “Just to show people behind all the cultural veneer and stereotypes.”

Minami and Yoshida had been filmed by Japanese TV crews before, and Toda says they encouraged her not to hold back. In one of the most powerful scenes, she goes for a nighttime drive with Yoshida on the anniversary of his father’s death. What was supposed to be a short journey ends up lasting six hours, as he fields calls from clients while recounting his experiences of growing up in poverty, and talking candidly about his own sense of inadequacy.

“He was saying that with a lot of Japanese crews, they get scared once things get a bit too intimate,” she says. “Because of politeness, they don’t go deeper — they don’t ask deeper questions, maybe uncomfortable questions. But he was like: ‘We’re doing this, aware that it might get uncomfortable, so we want people to have that courage to go somewhere uncomfortable too.'”

Court order: Lawyers Masafumi Yoshida (left) and Kazuyuki Minami take on controversial cases in
Court order: Lawyers Masafumi Yoshida (left) and Kazuyuki Minami take on controversial cases in ‘Of Love & Law.’ | © NANMORI FILMS

In the course of filming, Toda received some tips from veteran documentarian Kazuo Hara, an adept navigator of the uncomfortable, about how to handle her subjects.

“He was like, ‘You just need to be aware that for them, you’re a nuisance,'” she recalls. “Even if they have a message that they want to deliver to the world — even if they have good intentions of sharing their stories with you — being followed with a camera is annoying after a while. So you just need to know that, and you need to figure out how to make that exciting for them again.”

“Of Love & Law” opens at Cine Libre in Osaka on Sept. 22, followed by a nationwide release. All screenings will have English subtitles. For more information, visit www.aitohou-movie.com.

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