Isshin Inudou’s Maison de Himiko, the best of the four recent Japanese films having U.S. Premieres at Japan Society this month, isn’t the kind of movie that just isn’t made in this country—it’s the kind of movie that just isn’t made well in this country. That is, it’s hard to imagine a movie in which a daughter takes a part-time job at the gay retirement home owned by her estranged, terminally ill drag queen father trading in currency other than treacly epiphanies and self-satisfied moral instruction. But despite the occasional melodramatic backslide, the film considers prejudice a personal rather than social problem, and treats its diffuse depictions of sexuality with nonchalance.
The uniformly stellar cast doesn’t hurt, either. In a major, pace-setting performance as the much younger boyfriend of Himiko, the home’s dying owner, Joe Odagiri picks people apart from under his bangs, his intentions clouded in translucent diffidence. As Himiko’s daughter, Kou Shibasaki (Battle Royale’s eyelash-crimping natural born killer), de-glams except for one scene: she and one of the queens play ultra-femme dress-up in a quick-change montage that also functions as an implicit demonstration of the gender-is-drag thesis.
Along the same productively blurred lines is a macho stand-up to gay-bashing (Odagiri tauntingly slapping a teenage homophobe) far more layered than, say, Heath Ledger’s fireworks show in Brokeback Mountain. In fact, at a time when even that most “progressive” American film is concerned primarily with the fact of its characters’ sexuality, the relaxed Maison de Himiko is a hopeful vision of a community no longer required to constantly define and justify itself.
Elsewhere in the series, Shinji Somai’s last film, 2001’s Kaza-hana sets its equally damaged protagonists adrift in the snows of Hokkaido, flashbacks slowly filling in the blanks of both their crippling backstories. Somai occasionally teases out his slight inflections to the point of slackness, but the dried-out episodic mood settles agreeably. It’s also of interest for the novelty of go-to New Asian Cinema heartthrob Tadanobu Asano, normally the most sensuous of actors, playing a withered tight-ass.
And most curiously, 93-year-old Kaneto Shindo delivers the inscrutably allegorical The Owl, a single-set exercise in coy tongue-in-cheek repetition in which a mother and daughter, the only two remaining members of a rural “pioneer” community, lure, intoxicate, seduce, and poison a series of municipal employees. The sequence is always the same, although each collapsing victim does emit a different animal noise.