Jun (Fuju Kamio) is a good-looking high school student with an awful secret: He’s gay, and having an affair with a married man. Kooky classmate Sae (Anna Yamada) has a secret of her own: She’s addicted to BL (boys’ love) manga, a homoerotic genre aimed at female readers.
These two things absolutely aren’t the same, but they’re treated that way in Shogo Kusano’s “What She Likes…,” a well-intentioned but spectacularly tone-deaf drama that shows how far mainstream Japanese cinema is still lagging in its depiction of LGBTQ issues.
Part of the problem, of course, is that so many films are based on BL manga, an escapist genre that’s hardly the best place to look for realistic portrayals of gay relationships. When Jun catches Sae buying a typically racy title in a bookshop, he pinches it from her and has a few chuckles at how implausible the storylines are.
|Rating||out of 5|
|Run Time||121 mins.|
Yet “What She Likes …” shares many of the same hang-ups as recent BL adaptations such as Isao Yukisada’s misfiring “The Cornered Mouse Dreams of Cheese.”
Jun’s sexuality is presented as a limitless source of shame and self-loathing (the fact that his lover, Makoto, is twice his age doesn’t seem to be worth mentioning, though). He isn’t just in the closet: He’s still tormenting himself with a heteronormative dream of getting married, having kids and dying surrounded by his family, which is a heck of an ambition for a 16-year-old.
This is what leads Jun to start dating Sae, despite knowing that his best friend, Ryohei (Oshiro Maeda), has a crush on her; as he tells Makoto, in the film’s wittiest line, he “created” a girlfriend. Predictably, he discovers that faking a relationship is harder than expected, but that isn’t enough to disabuse him of his obsession with living a “normal” life.
Kamio is perfectly fine as the film’s flavorless protagonist, but Yamada — who was far better in the recent “Unlock Your Heart” — proves herself a highly effective irritant. By far the most interesting character is Jun’s alpha male classmate, Ono (Ryota Miura), who’s the only person that doesn’t behave in a predictable fashion.
The ellipsis in the movie’s title was presumably deemed preferable to using the full name of its source novel, by Naoto Asahara, which translates as “What She Loves is Homos, Not Me.” (That slur does, however, pop up repeatedly in the English subtitles.) Asahara, who is gay, devotes much of his Twitter feed to discussing the intricacies of BL, and I’m guessing there was a layer of nuance in his book that’s been lost here.
Kusano’s screenplay is too compressed to have time to explore the story’s themes, and keeps hedging its bets. After Jun gets outed at school, the film inserts a classroom discussion in which his fellow students insist they’re open-minded about such matters, which just makes it seem like he’s the one at fault.
A crucial subplot involving Jun’s online confidante, known only as Mr. Fahrenheit, gets so garbled, it could probably have been cut altogether. That might have remedied the fact that the film seems to end three times.
It concludes, finally, with the message that people shouldn’t be defined by their sexuality — having spent the previous two hours doing exactly that. There’s virtue signaling going on here, but the signals are all wrong.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.