The past decade has served up some superb LGBTQ cinema, from “Carol” to “Moonlight” to “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” but filmmakers in Japan are still generally struggling to get it right. Isao Yukisada makes an earnest attempt with “The Cornered Mouse Dreams of Cheese,” a notable addition to the country’s still-small canon of mainstream depictions of gay romance.

The film’s poster entices viewers with an image of stars Tadayoshi Ohkura and Ryo Narita enjoying a moment of quiet intimacy, and the movie features scenes of unaffected domesticity that feel fresh, at least for Japanese cinema. So too does the sight of an actor from the notoriously prudish talent agency Johnny & Associates doing steamy love scenes with members of both sexes.

Yet it’s a frustrating film, and many of the problems seem to originate from its source text: a “boys’ love” manga by Setona Mizushiro that lumbers the movie with more hang-ups than it can handle.

The Cornered Mouse Dreams Of Cheese (Kyuso Wa Chizu No Yume O Miru)
Run Time 130 min.
Language Japanese
Opens Now Showing

Ohkura plays Kyoichi, a handsome, successful professional who’s also self-centered and cripplingly indecisive. He certainly doesn’t look like a mouse, but in his relationships, including his frosty marriage, he has a habit of scurrying off at the first display of real affection.

When Wataru (Narita), a former university pal turned private investigator, shows up at Kyoichi’s office and produces incriminating photographs of him with a paramour, the businessman tries to strike a deal. But Wataru only has eyes on getting into Kyoichi’s pants, and after encountering some initial resistance, he finds he’s picked a willing mark.

Kyoichi’s attempts to save his marriage end up coming to naught after his wife reveals he wasn’t the only one being unfaithful, and he moves into a minimalist bachelor pad that’s more amenable to having a live-in male companion. However, the intimacy he starts to enjoy with Wataru isn’t without complications. The professional sleuth shows no qualms about prying into Kyoichi’s personal affairs, while the latter can’t seem to quit his womanizing.

After a chance reunion with an old college girlfriend forces the situation to a head, Kyoichi is drawn into a relationship with a young coworker, Tamaki (Shiori Yoshida). All the while, the two men continue to tumble in and out of bed with each other without ever quite coupling up.

Though Mizushiro’s manga is one of the better-regarded examples of the boys’ love genre — homoerotic comics written by women for a female readership — it’s not exactly “Call Me by Your Name.” Anne Horizumi’s script wisely ditches the manga’s homophobic slurs, but can’t get past some of the story’s biggest stumbling blocks.

Wataru comes across as a possessive stalker who uses blackmail to “turn” a straight guy, which was a repugnant trope even when the manga was first published in the mid-2000s. There’s something equally tired about the story’s all-or-nothing view of sexuality, which never allows for the possibility that Kyoichi may be bisexual.

Yukisada’s adaptation prunes Mizushiro’s voluminous dialogue, often leaving characters’ intentions unsaid, and devises a new, more ambivalent ending. It also tames the manga’s raging emotions, which I think was a mistake. This is a tale about two people making a mess of love, and the film’s cool-headed approach only renders their actions harder to understand.

When Kyoichi and Wataru reach their most passionate embrace, it’s a beautiful scene, but it seems to come out of nowhere. For a movie about raging desire, “The Cornered Mouse Dreams of Cheese” is curiously tepid.

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