Daishi Matsunaga’s Egoist, which was released in Japanese cinemas on February 10 after premiering last year at the 35th Tokyo International Film Festival, is a very gay movie. Unlike many mainstream LGBTQ productions that keep on-screen homosexual intimacy to a minimum to be more “accessible” to heterosexual audiences, Egoist is full of long, explicit shots of male-on-male love.

There’s lots of kissing, caressing and penetration, which, thanks to the director’s keen eye, remain resolutely erotic without becoming pornographic. That being said, Egoist makes it clear that gay relationships are about more than just sex, and in doing so, the movie poses a difficult question that will resonate with both straight and queer audiences: Does doing a “good” thing still count if you’re doing it for selfish reasons?


The Story of a Lonely Man

Based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Makoto Takayama, Egoist stars Ryohei Suzuki as Kosuke, a fashion magazine editor and a man yearning for human connection. Despite having a successful career, a beautiful house and seemingly lots of friends, Kosuke has been lonely since losing his mother at a young age. Raised in a rural community, he had to suppress his identity and develop a thick shell to protect himself. But as the years go by, that shell starts to crack.

So, when he hires Ryuta, a personal trainer played by Hio Miyazawa, their interactions immediately kick off with lots of prolonged, sensual touching, underscoring how starved Kosuke is for physical affection. The two eventually become a couple until Ryuta suddenly breaks things off, revealing that he also works as an escort to support his mother, and that his genuine feelings for Kosuke have made the work too painful for him. That’s when Kosuke offers Ryuta a monthly stipend so he can quit sex work and be with him. Ryuta accepts.


The Love Language of Money

There’s nothing in the movie that would suggest Kosuke is a bad person. But it’s also made clear that the main reason why he helps Ryuta is because he cannot stand to be alone. His gift of money ultimately comes from a selfish place. But does that make it any less meaningful?

The movie never gives us an answer to that. It could be said that Kosuke actually offers Ryuta all that he has. Kosuke yearns for love but initially doesn’t know what it really is, so instead he helps Ryuta with what he does have: cash. With time, he does develop real feelings for Ryuta while continuing to support him financially. The payments suddenly start coming from a place of love, but from the outside, nothing has changed. So, are the reasons for doing a “good” thing really that important? This question gets asked all throughout the movie.


In Search of a Family

Kosuke eventually meets Ryuta’s mother Taeko (Sawako Agawa) and begins doting on the elderly woman in various but primarily monetary ways. Their relationship is very similar to that of Kosuke and Ryuta. It started because Kosuke needed something. That something was the love of a substitute mother, which he tried to secure or at least reward with money. His decision to support Taeko (which, over time, moves beyond just giving her money) does ultimately become motivated by his realization that they’re already mother and son. Even Taeko starts referring to Kosuke as her second child.

Best of all, powerful scenes like those are saved from becoming mawkish through minimal use of music or even doing away with it altogether at times. It helps the audience to not get lost in the emotions and question whether something that started from a selfish need can ever really be called “touching” or “heartfelt.” Once again, Egoist poses the query but refuses to supply an answer, allowing everyone to take away something different from the film without feeling cheated. Because that’s what masterpieces do, and that’s what Egoist is, more than earning its place on a list of the most exciting Japanese movies of 2023.