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An outsider brings transgender struggles to Japan's movie screens

Eiji Uchida's 'Midnight Swan' stars SMAP's Kusanagi as protagonist

Japanese megastar Tsuyoshi Kusanagi, left -- a former member of the hugely popular boy band SMAP -- plays the role of an impoverished transgender woman in this year's surprise hit "Midnight Swan."    © 2020 Midnight Swan Film Partners

TOKYO -- Sometimes it takes an outsider to understand other outsiders.

Born and raised in Brazil before moving to Japan at the age of 11, Eiji Uchida struggled to adapt to Japanese society as a child. Now a well-known movie director, he has built a career portraying the lives of fellow misfits.

His latest film depicts the travails of an impoverished transgender woman, and has become a rare hit for an art-house picture -- especially one that portrays a marginalized sector of Japanese society.

Boosted by megastar Tsuyoshi Kusanagi playing the protagonist, "Midnight Swan" has taken more than 500 million yen ($4.7 million) at the box office since its release a month ago.

The movie depicts how Nagisa, a dancer in a Tokyo transgender nightclub, finds hope in her gloomy life after encountering a teenage girl, Ichika, a distant relative who was beaten and kicked out of her Hiroshima home by her alcoholic mother.

Top: Born and raised in Brazil, Japanese director Eiji Uchida, 49, wrote the script for "Midnight Swan." Every "scene in the movie is based on my reporting and is a true story," he says. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi) Bottom: Nagisa, a dancer in a Tokyo transgender nightclub, finds hope in her gloomy life after encountering a teenage girl, Ichika.   © 2020 Midnight Swan Film Partners

While Nagisa is initially cold toward Ichika, she gradually finds sympathy for the unloved girl and helps her on the path to becoming a top ballerina. Nagisa makes a decision to be accepted as a woman, and also become Ichika's "mother."

Uchida, 49, believes that intertwining social issues with entertainment is the most effective way to deliver a message to a wide audience -- in this case, raising awareness of the prejudice many transgender people face in Japan. One recent example was of a Tokyo politician blaming the LGBT community for the country's falling birthrate.

"The movie's focus on transgender people was the only element that was noticed right after its release," Uchida tells Nikkei Asia. "It is only recently that I started to receive feedback that this is not a 'transgender movie' but rather a story of a mother and a daughter, affection, and the life of Nagisa."

Sporting a porkpie hat and plain T-shirt in an interview at the film's production company, Uchida asks: "Will middle-aged men and women in a random place in the countryside watch a transgender movie?" adding that "entertainment might help these people get to know that people lead such lives. That's good enough for me."

Uchida wrote the screenplay, but it is rare for such an original script to attract a large audience in Japan. Hit films are usually adapted from anime, manga, or novels.

Top: Eiji Uchida, a former reporter for the Japanese version of Playboy magazine, has built a career portraying the lives of misfits. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi) Bottom: Tsuyoshi Kusanagi and Misaki Hattori, who plays the role of Ichika, a teenage girl who was beaten and kicked out of her Hiroshima home by her alcoholic mother.   © 2020 Midnight Swan Film Partners

Kusanagi -- a former member of the hugely popular boy band SMAP -- said earlier this month that he decided to take the role immediately after reading the screenplay.

"I found myself crying a lot when I first read the screenplay," Kusanagi told reporters at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan. "I didn't know what my tears were for, but I felt there was beauty about these tears."

Uchida, however, admits he was initially not sure how to portray a transgender protagonist. He started writing the screenplay five years before shooting, gradually changing his depiction of Nagisa as he kept on uncovering the daily ordeals encountered by transgender people.

In writing the script, Uchida says he met transgender people from all walks of life, including politicians, accountants, and office workers, as well as those working in nightclubs and red-light districts.

"Some people on social media say 'Midnight Swan' involves excessive staging, and overstates discrimination toward transgender people. But every scene in the movie is based on my reporting and is a true story," Uchida says.

"It is only recently that I started to receive feedback that this is not a 'transgender movie' but rather a story of a mother and a daughter, affection, and the life of Nagisa," says "Midnight Swan" director Eiji Uchida.   © 2020 Midnight Swan Film Partners

In the film, Ichika's classmates make fun of Nagisa: "Hey, is that your dad? Or maybe your mom?"; Nagisa's mother orders her to "please cure your disease"; and she is told at a job interview: "LGBT is something in fashion these days, right?"

"Of course, it's not natural to bunch all transgender people together with one expression. And there are people who live with happiness," Uchida says. "But I felt there was no silver lining anytime soon in the situation that surrounds transgender people in Japan."

Uchida co-wrote and directed episodes of last year's hit Netflix series "The Naked Director" -- a show that depicted a director in the 1980s trying to revolutionize Japan's porn industry. His other films, including "Lowlife Love" (2015) and "Love and Other Cults" (2017), have also focused on outsiders in various Japanese communities.

Suffering and isolation are recurrent themes in Uchida's work, and they perhaps stem from his own childhood experience.

Born in Rio de Janeiro, he went to local elementary schools in Brazil before coming to live in Oita on Japan's southern Kyushu island at the age of 11. He said he was often bullied by classmates for not being able to read and write Japanese fluently, and he dared not tell them that he'd come from Brazil.

Born and raised in Brazil before moving to Japan at the age 11, Uchida says movies saved his life. "They are more like a faith for me," he says. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

"That was the toughest time in my life. ... When I desperately wanted to go back to Brazil, I'd go to the movies," Uchida says. "Watching films in a theater allowed me to forget unpleasant things."

"I was an outsider in Japan at the time, even though I am Japanese. My past has a lot of influence on my film production."

His commitment to digging up the truth comes from his 10 years as a reporter for the Japanese version of Playboy magazine.

His outsider perspective, sexuality and violence are omnipresent in his movies. "Eroticism and violence have been long veiled under the name of 'culture' in Japan," he says.

In "Midnight Swan," one scene shows Ichika, who wants money for her ballet lessons, and her female teenage friend taking a part-time job in which some models dress up in bikinis and underwear for a photo session in Tokyo's Akihabara district -- an area known for its anime, video games, and otaku culture, which caters to geeks with specific obsessions.

"There are actually so many of these events. This is nothing but violence," Uchida laments, adding that "Akihabara culture" lets it prevail without regulation.

"I was saved by the movies. I don't consider movies as simply my job, but they are more like a faith for me," says Uchida. "Movies changed my life. Some young viewers have written that 'Midnight Swan' changed their life. ... I'm content that I made the film."

Uchida agrees that transgender actors should play transgender roles, but regrets that "currently Japanese society is not structured like that" and there is a lack of space for talented transgender actors.

Uchida is now preparing to hold a workshop that brings together cisgender, whose gender identity matches the one they were assigned at birth, and transgender actors.

"Someday I would like to make a movie where a transgender actor appears in an action movie, for example," Uchida laughs.

Additional reporting by Ken Kobayashi.

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