Japanese films with transgender themes, both fiction and nonfiction, are no longer a rarity. Among the former are Naoko Ogigami’s 2017 “Close-Knit” and Eiji Uchida’s upcoming “Midnight Swan.” But no one, I imagine, has done a deeper dive into one Japanese transgender life than Miyuki Tokoi.
She filmed her documentary “Zero as You Are” over a period of nine years, following Takamasa “Sky” Kobayashi from adolescence to adulthood and through transitioning from female to male. She then edited nearly a decade’s worth of footage down to a compact and impactful 84 minutes.
Sky (a self-selected English name) was diagnosed with gender identity disorder (GID) at 13. (The American Psychiatric Association reclassified GID as “gender dysphoria” in 2013 and the latter term has since come into standard use.) When we first meet Sky at age 17, he is outspoken from the get-go, telling a rapt audience at a speech contest that he has two goals: First, to become officially registered as male and live as a man and, second, to train as a voice actor.
|Rating||out of 5|
|Run Time||84 min.|
If this were a fictional drama, we’d expect the protagonist to encounter many obstacles on his journey — from social prejudice to harassment and abuse. Thankfully, almost none of this happens. Sky’s single mom is supportive, his high school classmates are friendly and even the school nurse has his back. Sky starts his physical transition at age 18 and, soon after his 20th birthday, becomes legally male. It seems that we are heading for a predictable, if welcome, happy ending.
But as Tokoi’s camera follows Sky’s progress and her questions probe and occasionally irritate her subject, we realize that Sky is not as certain about his identity and future as he first appears to be. We learn that his past was troubled, with classmates’ bullying intensifying his childhood pain over his gender identity. It becomes clear that the adult Sky is more complex and relatable than his at times cranky adolescent self.
Also, Sky becomes an emphatic interviewer in his own right, visiting classical musician Miyuki Yashiro, now 95, who transitioned to female at age 78 and is living happily with her former wife. Miyuki says that when she was a child in prewar Japan, gender dysphoria “was considered a mental illness,” but now she is relieved to be who she really is. “I have no regrets,” she says. “I want to be like her,” Sky adds.
They also visit Jun Nakajima, who was born female but now identifies as nonbinary. “Everyone is different,” Jun tells Sky. “If society accepts gender expression on a spectrum, gender categories will disappear.” After their discussion, Sky says, “Jun changed me.”
Exactly how much becomes clear later. The teenage Sky who said he needed to go from “negative to zero” — that is to the proper gender that most people have at birth — now questions what he calls “black and white” gender distinctions. “Ambiguity is good,” he concludes.
The film gives only passing attention to Japan’s legal strictures on transgender individuals, such as the requirement that Sky must undergo sterilization before being accepted as male. Also, the film amps up the positive, giving more screen time to success stories than the still prevalent discrimination faced by sexual minorities here.
But Tokoi’s tenacity in taking Sky’s story beyond its obvious conclusion deserves applause, as does Sky, a “zero” who becomes a self-actualized “plus,” triumphantly undefined by a pronoun.
“Zero As You Are” will be screened with English subtitles on Aug. 15 and 18 at Uplink Shibuya in Tokyo.