It’s clear that LGBTQ+ representation has significantly grown in popular cinema in just the past few years. But too often in this conversation are non-Western movies neglected. Of course, as the calls for more diverse media grow louder, it’s necessary to recognize media diversity. Films with LGBTQ+ characters aren’t a monolith. Resist the VPN. Netflix Japan has a good range of international offerings, from animation to musical, from lighter teen flicks to heavy dramas.
Tomo (Rinka Kakihara), an 11-year-old girl, lives with her mother – until she finds herself alone. She then goes to live with her uncle Makio (Kenta Kiritani) and his girlfriend, Rinko (Toma Ikuta), who is a transgender woman. This drama has all the charm and interpersonal subtlety of Hirokazu Koreeda’s cinema of unconventional family, but instead of childrearing, it is focused more on the way Tomo navigates these unique relationships (Why does this stranger take better care of me than my own mother?) and people’s reactions to her new living situation. As much as we get to hear Rinko’s “backstory” and the history of Tomo’s fraught biological family, to watch Rinko and Tomo’s relationship unfold is to watch a family come into its own.
Japanese title: 僕らが本気で編むときは, Bokura ga Honki de Amutoki wa
2. Dear Ex
Another domestic drama, with purposefully kitschier and more colorful flavors and just as much heart. When Sanlian’s (Ying-Xuan Hsieh) husband Zhangyuan (Spark Chen) dies, she discovers that he designated his male lover Jay (Roy Chiu) as his benefactor – but she must sign off on the claim. She brings her 13-year-old son, Chengxi (Joseph Huang), with her to Jay’s apartment to confront her dead husband’s lover. Not only is Chengxi’s narration foregrounded – teen angst always makes for good viewing – but we are offered character studies of all three protagonists, all their flaws and yearnings for love. Dear Ex is very stylish, with the long shots and hot hues (and an outstanding soundtrack!), but ultimately it’s a tearjerker.
3. Duck Butter
The plot is simple, maybe fatally so: Naima (Alia Shawkat) and Sergio (Laia Costa) meet and hook up and decide to spend 24 hours together, having sex on the hour. They’ve both had dishonest and exhausting relationships in the past and are tired of reserve, unnecessary tension and wasted time. Despite the claustrophobia and listlessness of this movie, the sex scenes are fantastic, stuffy and real, not grossly sexy; and the microdramas are blown up and made bizarrely intense. It’s hard to tell whether this is intentional, but the movie leaves you feeling as exhausted and confused as the marathon relationship did. We search for meaning beyond the exasperating 24 hours Naima and Sergio spend together, not that there’s supposed to be, but that doesn’t make Duck Butter any less memorable.
Japanese title: 24時間ずっとLOVE, 24jikan Zutto Love
Just the animation should earn Doukyusei more attention. To complement the muted, gentle, genuinely unparalleled visuals, there is a simple “slice of life” story: Hikaru Kusakabe (Hiroshi Kamiya) is in a rock band, an eccentric and free spirit; and when he sees classmate Rihito Sajo (Kenji Nomiya), an honor student, practicing solitarily for an upcoming class chorus festival, the two spark a friendship that blossoms into romance. We see their relationship develop over the course of high school. Plot-wise, there’s nothing new, but this allows for more nuance in exploring Hikaru and Rihito’s relationship, their internal struggles, and their anxieties about the future. And perhaps most importantly, the protagonists are loving, supportive and share such a wholesome bond – refreshingly so, with the glut of toxic relationships in romance flicks.
Japanese title: Doukyusei
5. Saturday Church
Even those sworn enemies of musicals will be taken with the sweetness of this. When his father dies, young teen Ulysses (Luka Kain), who is exploring his gender identity, is put doubly under pressure: His schoolmates and family berate him for being effeminate, and his aunt Rose (Regina Taylor) signs him up to be an acolyte at their church. One night Ulysses is walking around Chelsea Piers and meets a group of people involved in Saturday Church, an organization run by transgender activist Joan (Kate Bornstein) to feed, house, and assist LGBTQ youth (based on a real-life program in West Village, Art and Acceptance – Cardasis drew much from his own experience ). Ulysses’ journey for companionship and acceptance is punctuated by intense, emotionally resonant musical numbers centering NYC ballroom culture. Musical fantasy, however, is no crutch or substitute for emotional rendering.
Japanese title: Saturday Night Church