Transgender people in Japan have long found a haven of sorts in the entertainment world, be it as a dancer in a nightclub or an emcee on a network variety show. As we see in Eiji Uchida’s tumultuous drama “Midnight Swan,” though, that supposed haven can be fragile indeed.
Despite some progress in social acceptance of the LGBTQ community, compared with generations past, a transgender woman like the film’s protagonist, played by one-time mega-idol Tsuyoshi Kusanagi, still faces the kind of prejudice that leaves her marginalized — or outcast — starting with her own family.
Based on Uchida’s original script, the story of the protagonist, Nagisa, is dark to the point of being bleak, with its grim view of her prospects minus youth, love and, finally, health.
This presents a sharp contrast to the similarly themed “Close-Knit,” Naoko Ogigami’s 2017 drama about a transgender woman (Toma Ikuta) who becomes a surrogate mother to the young niece of her nice-guy boyfriend. While “Close-Knit” celebrates the ordinary humanity of its LGBTQ characters, “Midnight Swan” theatrically laments their fixed-in-the-stars fates. Perhaps a better comparison is the classic 1936 melodrama “Camille,” with Kusanagi doing his darndest to equal the pathos of Greta Garbo’s doomed courtesan.
Bringing light into this gloom is the parallel story of Ichika (Kisaki Hattori), the teenage daughter of Nagisa’s feckless alcoholic sister Saori (Asami Mizukawa). Kicked out of her Hiroshima home by Mom, Ichika journeys to Tokyo to stay with Nagisa, who barely acknowledges her existence, but grudgingly helps her enroll in school.
Silent and withdrawn, if prone to violence when provoked, Ichika seems destined for a lonely high school life. Her salvation is ballet, which she adores but has never studied properly. Encountering a sympathetic teacher (Sei Matobu) and a friendly classmate (Rinka Ueno) who is also a budding ballerina, Ichika begins to train at a neighborhood ballet studio — and quickly becomes its star.
Nagisa, however, at first has neither the money nor desire to underwrite Ichika’s dancing dream. Still, that dream comes to remind Nagisa of her own: To be accepted as a woman and a mother.
The stories of Nagisa and Ichika make for an awkward fit, not helped by plot turns that range from the expected to the turgid. But as he did in such films as “Lowlife Love” (2015) and “Love and Other Cults” (2017), which also examined Japanese society’s outer edges, Uchida gets beneath the surface of his characters’ milieus to find moments of unforced drama and closely observed realism. I’ve seen many dance classes in films (and even a few in person), but none with the intensity and youthful power of Ichika’s.
Additionally, though Hattori has her limits as an actress (this is her first film role), she is a quietly strong presence as Ichika, right down to her trained dancer’s poise. And when she takes to the stage, this real-life ballerina who has won contests here and abroad, is a soaring marvel of grace.
Kusanagi strains to show us Nagisa’s wounded heart, but this former member of SMAP — for decades Japan’s biggest boy band — can’t shake the habits acquired in those many years of TV drama emoting. That said, the all-too-real hardships and horrors Nagisa suffers elicit our sympathy, even when she is dramatically sweeping her hair from her face for the umpteenth time.
And, yes, she would have made a fine mom.