Japan (2008) Dir. Eiji Uchida
Johnny Cash famously observed “Love is burning thing” and this appears to very true regardless of one’s sexual orientation. The bright and bubbly Natsuko (Mina Shimizu) upsets her lover of ten years Tomomi (Erika Okuda) and they split up.
To compensate Natsuko has a string of meaningless flings until she meets up with Tomomi again, only to learn that she has a boyfriend Kenta (Ryûnosuke Kawai) whom she plans to marry. As a result Natsuko begins to question her own sexuality and becomes antagonistic towards everyone including her male flatmate Koji (Sô Sakamoto) who has been harbouring his feelings for Natsuko for a long time.
Despite the suggestive title and the premise this is not a raunchy film with no overt nudity or anything steamier than few kisses between Natsuko and Tomomi at the start. There is something approximating a sex scene but again it is not raunchy, erotic or titillating in the slightest, as well discuss later. The title comes from the childhood days of director Eiji Uchida who grew up in Brazil and saw topless ladies on the beach on a daily basis (lucky sod!), using this as an metaphorical expression of freedom for all lesbians.
The main players might all be lesbians or have bi-sexual leanings but the story is more to do with exploring what true love is from both the gay and straight perspectives as well as a subplot that looks at parental ties. A high school girl Kana (Aya Ohmasa) arrives in Tokyo seeking her lesbian mother who abandoned her and her father when she was a baby.
Already confused as to how a gay woman could get married and have a child Kana holds a deep resentment towards her mother and lesbians as a result while Natsuko, who takes out of towner Kana under her wing, tries to teach her to think differently, while her own feelings are mixed with cynicism following her split with Tomomi.
With Tokyo being a bustling metropolis the pressures of fitting into society are far greater than in a small village where most people are left alone. Natsuko is someone who refuses to be bound by such conventions and wear whatever labels are put on her, preferring to accept that people are essentially the same and that all rules apply regardless. She cynically thinks that Tomomi can’t handle being a lesbian and is only marrying Kenta to conform to the social mores, an argument which opens a can of self doubts for Natsuko.
I mentioned earlier there was a sex scene in this film. A slight spoiler but it involves Natsuko and Koji after Natsuko realises that Kenta is a good man and that he will make Tomomi happy. The scene itself is tender, embarrassing, funny, touching, awkward and not really graphic or steamy while being the most revealing scene of the entire film.
The aftermath is perfectly pitched with Natusko wrapped up tightly in the covers like it is layer of protection from the world, her wild panicking eyes telling the whole story; meanwhile Koji is lying next to her, undressed and staring at the ceiling, confused as to whether he was won the lottery or he has lost his ticket. Just a sublimely magical and emotive moment.
Uchida’s overall intentions for this film appear to be less about flying the flag for lesbians but letting us know that affairs of the heart are universal although the female perspective has been afforded attention in Japan than the males when it comes to gay issues.
The closest we get to proselytising is the small group lesbian Natsuko belongs to, half of whom want to make a serious stand for their cause while Natsuko just wants to have fun. After a break she returns to find new members have joined and the group is now the serious active propaganda group Natsuko objects too.
Unfortunately the subplot with Kana and her mother is underplayed which is a surprise considering it is the catalyst for Natsuko’s epiphany where she finally faces up to who and what she is and how being a lesbian shouldn’t come with a different set of rules to everyone else.
Sadly, this pivotal scene is accompanied by a cheesy musical passage one finds in cheesy TV dramas that really should have been extruded, serving only to spoil the moment. The final act is also drawn out beyond its usefulness – in fact there is a case for it not being needed at all since the preceding moment felt apt enough.
The film has a very low budget grainy look to it and the intimate, handheld camerawork plays a big part in creating that effect but no matter how small the production is, the towering performance Mina Shimizu makes this feel more of a big time outing. Shimizu commands the screen from the opening frame and doesn’t relinquish that hold even when she is not in the scene.
Having to carry the bulk of the emotional and physical load of the film it is remarkable that such an overriding essaying of this complex character comes from someone so tiny! This isn’t to under value the work of the others who provide ample support, although Aya Ohmasa is just too sulky for Kana to make a connection with the audience, but Natsuko is unquestionably the engine of this film and Shimizu more than rises to the challenge of relaying this.
The fact Topless comes from a male director – adapting the novel from the enticingly named lesbian writer Pudding Watanabe – is a bit of a surprise since all the hallmarks of female sensibilities are present by all that simply does is makes this more of a treat. It’s not entirely perfect with a few issues that drag it at the end but overall this is one of the most honest and refreshing looks at lesbianism in Japan that eschews the usual exploitation and titillation to great benefit for the film and the audience.