Yu at summer cram school (with bullies ready to stab her/him in the back).

Year: 2011
Country: Japan
Director: Iizuka Kashou (飯塚花)
Screenplay: Iizuka Kashou (飯塚花)
Cinematography: Iizuka Kashou (飯塚花)
Soundscore: Sato Nami
Cast: Hyuga Riku, Sato Kenichi, Komori Takayuki, Fukunaga Ryo, Inukai Mayu, Shibata Takuma, Sato Tetsuya
Runtime: 75 min
Trailer: Not available

Seen at a screening as part of the 26th BFI Lesbian & Gay Film Festival.

The BFI Lesbian & Gay Film Festival has been running since 1986, making it, as Julie Bindel writes over at the Guardian, “one of the longest-running gay-focused events in the UK”. In the early days of the festival,

films tended to be either shorts, experimental art-house or documentaries. Any full-length feature was almost guaranteed to be very low budget, and few were from outside of Europe or the US. Earlier programming reflected a minority culture and the film-makers were largely working in the independent low-budget sector. (Bindel)

Bokura no Mirai has probably much in common with the works of LGFF’s early days: it is very much an independently made, low-budget film, with Iizuka Kashou – aged 19, self-taught and a first-time filmmaker – not only at the directorial helm of the semi-autobiographical story, but acting also as its scriptwriter, casting agent and cameraman. Bokura no Mirai is, consequently, a very raw film. Dialogue can feel choppy both because of the script and the acting, the camera is handheld throughout, the lighting sometimes clumsily dark, the sound at times too low. It is easy to find fault in all this and although it is unlikely that any of these characteristics were intended, the resulting rawness in many ways serves the story. It reflects the situation of Yu (Hyuga Riku), the film’s central character, a teenage girl who longs to be a boy but is very much at the beginning of the journey s/he must undertake to achieve a male identity in mind and body. Although s/he has always rejected ‘girly things’, Yu is at a point where s/he realises that the way s/he feels has a name: Gender Identity Disorder. S/he reads books about the subject, but struggles to fully embrace this self, internally as well as externally. Yu is insecure about her/his self-identification but simultaneously finds it impossibly difficult to wear a skirt to school and puts on P.E. trousers instead. Although it is only summer school that s/he attends, the handful of boys s/he is stuck in class with bully Yu over her/his masculine appearance, while Yu’s parents, too occuppied with their impending divorce, remain in the dark about the situation (the bullying as well as Yu’s sexual identity). Life for the teen is thus raw and painful, the future very much unclear.

A step ahead: the openly transgender Haruka.

Yu’s only confidantes are two fellow social outcasts: Haruka, a childhood friend, who is a female born into a male body, and Yoshiki, a guy who is trying to come to terms with his homosexuality. Unlike Yu, Haruka has parents who are not only aware but supportive of their child’s transgender identity, meaning she dresses female in public and is due to start hormone therapy. Yoshiki’s situation, meanwhile, is similar to Yu’s: he remains deeply in the closet and despairs about his sexual orientation to the point that he has suicidal thoughts and even suggests that he and Yu have sex to cure themselves of their ‘deviant’ desires.

Watching Bokura no Mirai brings Shimura Takako’s 放浪息子 (Hōrō Musuko/The Wandering Son aka The Transient Son) to mind. Like Bokura no MiraiHōrō Musuko is one of the few voices in the public discussion of transgender issues in Japan, featuring, first in manga (2003 – ongoing), then in anime form (2011), a girl, Yoshino, who wants to be a boy and a boy, Shuichi, who wishes to be a girl. With its characters being fifth graders, it begins its exploration at a much earlier and, in some ways, more innocent (but not less valid) stage than Bokura no Mirai.

Hōrō Musuko – DVD cover of episode 1.

Yoshino and Shuichi are faced with all kinds of difficulties because of their self-identification, but their story is gentler than that of Yu and her/his friends, something that is also underscored by the pastel-coloured hues of the beautifully illustrated anime series. While Bokura no Mirai shares Hōrō Musuko‘s sensitivity and quietness, it is, by necessity, much more grim. Its characters are physically as well as mentally more mature already, different issues coming into play.

Iizuka’s debut comes from the heart. It is a film that is realistic about the challenges that transgender and gay people face in their peripheral existence within Japanese society and although Yu’s problems are not resolved by the end of the film, Bokura no Mirai is hopeful: Yu may be wearing his female school uniform in the film’s final scenes, but we know that by opening up to his father he is a step further along in his journey.

As for Iizuka: the young director/scriptwriter/cinematographer (etc.) would of course benefit from training, but his first foray into film demonstrates that he possesses the right kind of perceptiveness to tell a moving story. Even if Bokura no Mirai has plenty of technical flaws as well as some narrative and dialogic weaknesses, it also offers us promising moments: in the first joint scene of Yu and Haruka, the latter of whom viewers have not yet been introduced, the camera approaches the youngsters from behind. Yu, looking like a boy, and Haruka, all girl in appearance, sit next to one another on a bench. Then they speak, a girl’s voice emanating from the boy and a boy’s voice from the girl, creating a jarring contrast between visuals and sound and powerfully underlining Yu and Haruka’s reality of being stuck in the wrong body.

Some (closing) words of wisdom from Bokura no Mirai: “Normality is an illusion. Everyone wants to be something they are not.” (spoken by Haruka)

Things to improve on: a pastel-tinted and somewhat cliché closing shot.

Overall Verdict: Iizuka’s semi-autobiographical debut Bokura no Mirai is a raw, but sensitive and genuine film that has the courage to speak out about the taboo of transgender and gay identity within Japanese society and will touch not only youngsters struggling with similar issues as the film’s central characters.

Rating: 7.5/10

Bonus bits:

  • A very interesting Q&A with the film’s director, Iizuka Kashou, and its lead actor, Hyuga Riku, at the Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF) in 2011.
  • Another review of Bokura no Mirai, by a viewer who saw it at the VIFF.
  • Hōrō Musuko trailer and Hōrō Musuko anime episodes on crunchyroll.
  • Official website of Hōrō Musuko anime (in Japanese).
  • Sidenote: Not sure about the Japanese spelling of the director’s name. The few sources that give it, write「飯塚花」, which reads “Iizuka Hana” in Romaji. “Hana” however normally is a female name. It may Kashou’s female birth name or it may be that the kanji 「花」 can be read in different ways – will ask my Japanese friends about this.
  • Unfortunately, with the exception of Hyuga Riku (Yu), I was unable to determine who plays which character in the film. There are very few resources available on Bokura no Mirai and most of the actors are non-professionals (e.g. the actor playing Haruka, in fact, plays a version of herself).