Earlier this year Fumio Kishida formally became Japan’s 100th Prime Minister. But the job could very well have gone to Sanae Takaichi or Seiko Noda, two members of the Liberal Democratic Party who were also in the running. They were both vying to become Japan’s very first female PM. So, Hayato Kawai’s latest movie, First Gentleman, could not have come at a more appropriate time. It tells the story of a female politician (Miki Nakatani) who actually manages to break through that glass ceiling and consequently turns her husband (Kei Tanaka) into the country’s maiden first gentleman. Hence the title. Sadly, the timing and maybe the casting are the only things the movie got right.

A Promising Premise

First Gentleman starts out great. Tanaka’s character Hiyori Soma sets out on an ornithological research expedition to the backwoods of Hokkaido where he and his team have no contact with the outside world. When he returns ten days later, he unexpectedly discovers that his wife Rinko, previously the leader of Japan’s opposition party, became the country’s first female PM in his absence. The premise is hilarious and it gives you hope that the rest of the movie will be just as good.

It could have possibly led to a commentary on gender roles. Maybe by showing the newly-elected PM’s staff not knowing what to do with Hiyori. Perhaps the movie could have shown political pundits trying to stir up controversy by accusing the unelected Hiyori of actually running the country through his wife. Japan is, after-all, still a very patriarchal society. There were so many ways the movie could’ve both entertained audiences and made them think but instead it chose to do… nothing.

A Movie About Nothing

There are things happening in First Gentleman but they don’t really amount to anything. Hiyori’s status as the first gentleman doesn’t seem to change his life that much outside of stopping him from going on another ornithological trip. He does get set up and blackmailed later as part of a plot by another politician to try and take Rinko’s place as PM. That, however, gets diffused pretty quickly and besides one tense and excellently-acted confrontation later, the presence of Rinko’s “rival” is barely felt throughout the film.

Hiyori does also have to deal with his family, who are the owners of a massive corporation and he does get the occasional earful from his brother about his wife’s plan to raise taxes. But, again, nothing comes from this despite it being yet another chance for some great commentary. Would a PM’s wife be told to get her husband “under control” and get him to change his policies? But despite that very thing happening in First Gentleman, it sadly doesn’t get analyzed or explored in the slightest.

Most of the film’s plot is just a series of things happening without any follow-up and the only thing stopping people from leaving the cinema out of boredom is the powerhouse performance by Nakatani. She moves flawlessly from projecting strength and confidence to love and warmth and heartbreaking vulnerability. It’s just such a shame that she didn’t have a good story to work with.

The Problem with the Film’s Ending

A story that’s simply “not very good” would still make First Gentleman worth a watch because of the premise and Nakatani. But some parts of the movie go beyond “not very good” and into “problematic” territory. Near the end of the story, Rinko becomes pregnant, experiences complications and steps down as a politician, choosing her private life over her professional one.

“What if a female PM got pregnant and it went badly?” is not the basis for a well-told story. It’s something that a right-wing YouTuber would scream into a mic while ranting about how women shouldn’t run things. Now, of course, Rinko’s decision to prioritize her child was correct. No one’s arguing that. But the fact that she was put into this position feels like a way to create cheap drama and send a bad message.

A Missed Opportunity

There were so many other ways to create tension and conflict within the story that would’ve been less predictable. They would have also actually involved Hiyori more. You know, the titular character of the movie. All the aforementioned issues aside, Hiyori’s character is underutilized. He’s part of the plot but doesn’t generate it. He says the right things but is too passive for the majority of the movie. It always feels like the film is playing it safe, but for whose benefit exactly? It’s hard to say. Then again, maybe there are more redeemable things in First Gentleman that I’m not seeing. So, check it out yourself if you get the chance.

More info:

• Japanese title: 総理の夫
• Based on: The novel Sori no Otto First Gentleman by Maha Harada
• Director: Hayato Kawai
• Cast: Miki Nakatani, Kei Tanaka
• Official Website: https://first-gentleman.jp/