Bright Lights Film Journal

<em>Beautiful Mystery</em> and <em>I Like You . . . I Like You Very Much</em> on DVD

The DVDs of these two rare gay pink films could use some extras and better source prints, but at least they’re here!

Sluggishly but steadily, one segment of once-inaccessible Asian cinema after another has been tucked into the fabric of mainstream American film culture, though it’s far from obvious that this process signifies open-armed multiculturalism and not just another way to market – or appropriate – “exotic” imports. Japanese anime’s tentacle rape hentai, once the ne plus ultra of home video deviance, has long since become the tamed resident of your local corporate video store, Hong Kong cinema is now as ubiquitous as Burger King, and with the scheduled 2002 domestic DVD releases of Ashutosh Gowariker’s Lagaan (2001) and Santosh Sivan’s Asoka (2001), U.S. home video will belatedly recognize the Bollywood masalas heretofore deemed un-importable. But because little withstands corporate cooption better than gay male erotica (at least for the moment), Japan’s gay porn industry still remains a mostly forbidden fruit, and the list of available titles seems in no urgent danger of expanding. Water Bearer’s recent DVD foray into gay Japanese cinema only resurrects Nakamura Genji’s Beautiful Mystery (1983) and Oki Hiroyuki’s I Like You … I Like You Very Much (1994), two films previously released on VHS in the mid-1990s, and two films that, along with Strand’s 1994 video release of Sato Hisayasu’s Pasolini-obsessed Muscle (1988), constitute the only apparent examples of gay male pinku eiga currently available from a legitimate U.S. video distributor.

With its bold yet disingenuous proclamation, “Revolutionary filmmaker Oki Hiroyuki has created the “pink films”: the first gay, sexually explicit films to come out of Japan,” the DVD case for Oki’s I Like You arguably tries to mislead the uninitiated into believing the use of the word “pink” is bound up in gay politics.1 Of course, the phrase “pink film” (or pinku eiga) has been used since the 1960s as a generic term to signify a variety of erotic, sado-erotic, and politico-erotic films – straight, gay, or in-between – whose small budgets, often brief running times, and specialized (though sizeable) demographics place them outside the genre of the mainstream feature.

Though a prolific director of straight pink films and erotic horror, director Nakamura Genji will be remembered by gay audiences for Beautiful Mystery, an audacious satire of Mishima Yukio’s “Shield Society” and the essence of Japanese militarism itself, and something of a landmark in the history of gay Japanese softcore.

The film’s two young heroes, Takizawa and Shinohara, are members of a paramilitary cult let by a Mishima-style pseudorevolutionary who plots a ridiculous coup while instructing his minions as to why Japan’s history of heroic male-male love should be the guiding principal of their nationalist devotion. Soon, we see that beneath militarist ideals of brotherhood lurks nothing more (nor less) than seething homosexual lust: “The left wing is all about philosophy, but the right wing is all about feeling,” instructs Takizawa while he rapes submissive novitiate Shinohara. This is the unique pleasure of Mystery: after wading through the misogynous samurai machismo fostered not only by orientally minded cultists but by decades of “legitimate” criticism, it is refreshing to see a film literally strip the samurai down to his queerly quivering fundoshi. But when Takizawa and Shinohara chicken out the day of the insurrection and become transvestite bar hostesses, director Nakamura climactically reclothes them in Westernized drag, as if to jokingly suggest the samurai’s heart is not misogynistic but womanly – it is the very thing against which it protests too much.

Unlike Hashiguchi Ryosuke, who had penetrated the mainstream with his teenage coming-out drama Like Grains of Sand (1995), Oki Hiroyuki has remained at the margins of Japan’s gay cinema, making personal – even solipsistic – films on low budgets and grainy stock. While the scenario of Oki’s I Like You isn’t much – the relationship of young lovers Yu and Shin is jeopardized by the passing temptations of strangers and ex-lovers – the film’s anguished, murky camerawork and elliptical narrative work to obscure a paper napkin screenplay with a front of avant-gardism. Oki’s directorial style too much resembles a film school graduation thesis, with arbitrary jump cuts, seemingly improvised dialogue, and a jiggling cinema verite camera passing for experimentalism. I suppose the handheld camera’s mind-numbing, over-caffeinated jitters are meant to suggest the sexual turmoil percolating beneath the façade of the daily lives of characters who desperately fill their existential holes with the material gratification of sex – a pretty bourgeois idea for an “underground” film.

I Like You‘s shadowy sex scenes are a muddle of lifeless realism and private intensity, combining organic, naturally recorded sounds with looped panting. In a Japan where the penis is (more or less) verboten, the sex never dares to cross the threshold of hardcore; as is frequently the case with Japanese erotica, however, neurotic censorships only facilitate fetishes that would not otherwise exist. Most conspicuously, Shin’s jockstrap serves not only the pragmatic function of camouflaging genital taboos, but becomes a nearly metaphysical totem that crystallizes the longings of those who gaze upon it. Though at times excruciatingly tedious, the film’s monotonous seaside atmosphere lingers in the memory, and the tedium does eventually blur into a kind of melancholic relaxation, even if the undernourished characters who populate this milieu remain as alien to us as they are to each other.

Sadly, these DVDs are as barebones as they come: burnt-on subtitles, no supplements, no extras whatsoever, and with prints (and translations) identical to the old, washed-out VHS versions. While audio commentaries are too often self-congratulatory appendices to films barely deserving existence let alone elucidation, these are films whose rare subject demands some historical illumination, not as a luxury but as a necessity. A program of Oki’s early amateur shorts – entirely unknown in the West – could have also nicely padded the 58-minute I Like You DVD to a more acceptable ninety minutes. For now, these two films will have to suffice (or fail to suffice), and, because gay pink films are unlikely to become the next flavor of the month, we can only hope another distributor will soon dig more deeply into the archives of Japan’s gay cinema.

  1. Beautiful Mystery predates all of Oki’s films, so it’s unclear why Water Bearer would call Oki the first director to make gay pink films. []