What was Japan’s first LGBTQ-themed film? One often-mentioned candidate is Keisuke Kinoshita’s 1959 melodrama “Farewell to Spring,” though more for the emotional ties between its young male protagonists than anything explicitly erotic. More upfront in its treatment — and more critically acclaimed — is Toshio Matsumoto’s “Funeral Parade of Roses” (1969), a free-form reworking of the Oedipus myth set in the countercultural milieu of go-go-era Tokyo and starring pioneering gay multitalent Shinnosuke Ikehata, aka Peter.

More than a decade later, Hitoshi Yazaki’s “Afternoon Breezes” (“Kazetachi no Gogo”) also broke new ground with its story of a young lesbian’s unrequited love for her straight roommate. This infatuation drives her to desperate acts, such as sleeping with the roomie’s libertine boyfriend to force a breakup and, when that fails, stalking the roommate herself. The heroine — the wide-eyed Natsuko (Setsuko Aya) — is clearly deluded about her chances with the roommate — the cool, stylish Mitsu (Naomi Ito), but can’t help dreaming of romance in the sultry Tokyo summer.

Shot by Yazaki when he was still a student in the film program at Nihon University, the film was short on the eros found in the era’s softcore pornography, but set a house record after it opened at Tokyo’s Image Forum theater in December 1980. It subsequently played around the country and at festivals abroad.

Despite this success, Yazaki did not direct a feature film again until “March Comes in Like a Lion,” his 1992 drama about the incestuous relationship between a free-spirited young woman and her amnesiac older brother. Invited to dozens of festivals in Japan and around the world, the film became another indie hit theatrically and propelled Yazaki to the forefront of the decade’s Japanese New Wave.

Starting with “March Comes in Like a Lion,” I have reviewed much of Yazaki’s work for this newspaper, including his female friendship movie “Strawberry Shortcakes” (2005) and his marital breakup drama “Sweet Little Lies” (2009), but had never interviewed Yazaki himself until his publicist contacted me about the recent re-release of “Afternoon Breezes” in a digitally restored version.

Meeting Yazaki at K’s cinema in Shinjuku — one of two Tokyo theaters that began screening the film starting in March — I reminded him we had been introduced long ago at a film event, an encounter he had not surprisingly forgotten.

He then lit a cigarette — the first of many — and began reminiscing about his now 39-year-old debut film.

“It was a shocking theme for its time,” he says. “But I didn’t especially mean the film to be shocking. People around me built it up that way, but I just wanted to investigate the love of one person for another. The sexes of those involved had nothing to do with it.”

Since he was a student at the time, I wondered if he faced any opposition from his teachers or school authorities regarding his theme. “I was studying in the scriptwriting course,” he says with a smile. “The school was more surprised by the fact that I would direct (the film). The subject matter didn’t bother them.”

Yazaki also wrote the script, inspired by a contemporary news story about a hair stylist who had come from Okinawa to Tokyo and died of starvation in her apartment. Her end is reflected in the lesbian heroine’s fate.

“It’s not quite the same as suicide,” Yazaki says. “I think of it as one way you can choose to die. But back then most people were just trying to live normally. That someone would choose to die of starvation in a city like Tokyo really shocked me.”

Rather than express that shock through the wordy explanations of the typical “problem film” of the time, Yazaki stripped his dialogue to the bare minimum.

“I wanted to make a film that lets you rediscover what it is to see,” he says. “Film is a medium you can feel something from just by seeing. When (‘Afternoon Breezes’) was first shown abroad, it had no English subtitles. For me it’s more important to get the audience to feel than to understand.”

At the time, Yazaki himself was binging on classic films of the past as part of his studies.

“Making a new film was like tossing back a ball after having it thrown to me by these other wonderful films,” he says. “I felt I had to do it. I had a strong desire to make something — I couldn’t resist it.”

Among his favorites were works by Yuzo Kawashima and Seijun Suzuki, who carved out distinctive identities while making commercial films for major studios in the 1950s and ’60s. But Yazaki tells me he also “strongly rejected” the era’s big commercial films.

“They’re still the norm even now. In a sense, they’ve given me the energy to keep directing,” he adds.

Made when Japan was on the cusp of its bubble economy, “Afternoon Breezes” is a nostalgic (if at times disturbing) glimpse into a vanished era, but given growing attention to LGBTQ issues now in the Japanese media and online, I suggest it is also timely. However, Yazaki says that “since the heroine’s heart is motivated by love, in making the film I didn’t feel I had to respond to something like LGBTQ — a term that didn’t exist then. This film happens to be about two women, but for me two men would have also been perfectly fine. It’s a story about two people.”

When the film was first screened abroad, he adds, the response was “really good,” but he was most pleased by a New York film critic who wrote that “the director (Yazaki) has created a film in which the fact of being male or female is irrelevant.”

He also remembers an encounter with an audience member at the Edinburgh Film Festival who told him she was a lesbian and that “Afternoon Breezes” was not a lesbian film: “My reply was, ‘You are exactly right.'”

“Afternoon Breezes” is showing at K’s Cinema in Shinjuku until April 5. For more information, visit kazetachinogogo.com.

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