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While doing research for his film, “Midnight Swan,” which centers on a transgender character, director Eiji Uchida was shocked at some of the information he came across. Though in terms of legal recognition and job opportunities, the lives of transgender people in Japan appear to have improved in recent years, Uchida feels that it only takes a scratch beneath the surface to realize that the situation is far from rosy.

“While ostensibly things aren’t as bad as they used to be, transgender individuals remain an oppressed minority in this country,” Uchida says. “There is no specific law prohibiting unfair discrimination against transgendered people, so many struggle to get jobs. As a result, many turn to the sex industry. I saw people forced to work in these tiny apartments crammed together. Many were there simply trying to make ends meet, others were attempting to raise enough money to pay for surgery. It’s so sad to see.”

Under Japanese law, anyone who wants to legally change genders here must first undergo a psychological evaluation to receive a diagnosis of “gender identity disorder” (individuals under the age of 20, in a marital relationship or with children under 20 are barred from applying). They then are required to be sterilized, a procedure that’s costly and potentially dangerous. Refusing to undertake the invasive surgery means being prohibited from gaining legal recognition of their gender identity.

This dilemma is one of several issues facing Nagisa, a transgender woman, in Uchida’s poignant and thought-provoking film that he has also adapted into a book. Played by Tsuyoshi Kusanagi, a former member of the hugely successful male idol group SMAP, Nagisa is a nightclub worker who takes in a distant relative named Ichika (Kisaki Hattori) after her alcoholic mother, Saori (Asami Mizukawa), is reported for abuse.

The relationship between Nagisa and her teenage ward is initially a frosty one, with Nagisa feeling frustrated that her Tokyo apartment has been invaded while Ichika barely says a word. It becomes clear that the latter’s only outlet for self-expression is ballet, and after realizing that Ichika has a gift for dancing, Nagisa becomes more of a maternal figure and attempts to make more money for ballet classes. However, finding a job outside of nightclub work proves to be challenging.

“You see dramas on TV with transgender characters and it often doesn’t feel realistic,” says Uchida. “Making a film like this, I knew I’d be tackling sensitive topics so I needed to do lots of research to make sure things were done right. I spoke with more than 20 transgender women and attempted to incorporate their stories into the movie. It’s probably a bit heavier than I originally set out for it to be, but this isn’t a political statement. It’s entertainment based on incidents that have happened. Some parts are sad, others are uplifting.”

Uchida, 49, first started working on the script around five years ago. He had long been interested in writing a story focusing on the problems faced by transgender people, yet at the same time was keen to avoid making a polemic film. He felt incorporating a lighter element about a young girl who aspires to be a professional ballet dancer would appeal to Japanese moviegoers.

“I was deeply impressed the first time I watched ballet about a decade ago,” says Uchida. “There are a lot of top-notch dancers from Japan and this part of the world in general, yet we still think of it as something Europeans do. I don’t think there are many films concentrating on Asian ballet so it was a good opportunity. Initially, the idea was to make two separate movies, then I thought it would be interesting to mix the two themes.

“The most difficult thing was finding someone to play Nagisa, which took years,” continues the director. “It’s a hard part and I was almost ready to give up when one of the producer’s sent the script to Kusanagi. He immediately said, ‘Let’s do it.’ It was a major boost to get such a big name. I felt he was ideal for the role. Many Japanese actors overact whereas Kusanagi is very natural. He’s a professional who pretty much only ever needed one take.”

While Kusanagi’s role in SMAP has cemented his status as a recognizable veteran of the entertainment industry, his co-star is only just getting started. Hattori, 13, beat around 1,000 girls to land the role of Ichika. Lauded for her talent as a ballet dancer, she had never formally acted before the audition.

“We got it down to a final four and (Hattori) was the one who stood out,” says Uchida. “She has an aura. On the opening day of the shoot, her dancing sequence brought everyone in the room to tears. In March, we had to stop filming because of the COVID-19 pandemic and when we returned to do the final scene a few months later, she’d gone up another level because she’d been practicing every day. It was amazing to see her development as both a dancer and actor.”

While Uchida has spent much of his career making independent, low-budget movies, he is no stranger to working on sets with major stars like Kusanagi. The filmmaker first cut his teeth in the Japanese entertainment industry on a TV show as an assistant director to Takeshi Kitano before taking up a position as a weekly reporter for Playboy magazine. Since his debut flick “Gachapon” in 2004, Uchida has become known for dark comedies often splattered with sex and violence such as “Greatful Dead,” “Lowlife Love” and “Love and Other Cults.” Last year he co-wrote and directed episodes for the hit Netflix series “The Naked Director.”

“(‘The Naked Director’) was the most famous production I’ve been involved with, but in terms of movies, ‘Midnight Swan’ is definitely the biggest,” says Uchida. “Even though it will be screened at 120 cinemas nationwide and is not an indie film, it still has the feel of one. It would be great if large numbers came to watch and learned something new about transgender issues in Japan. Yet, as I mentioned earlier, it’s not about trying to make a statement. The aim is simply to entertain audiences.”

“Midnight Swan” opens in theaters nationwide from Sept. 25. For more information, visit midnightswan-movie.com (Japanese only).

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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