All across the world, there has been a growing concern over the regression of several LGBTQ+ rights. What took centuries to ratify has been stripped back and stolen certain rights from people simply because the people in power live their lives with hatred. While many on this side of the pond will be aware of how the US Supreme Court has failed its citizens, they may not be aware that Japan is facing similar struggles.
That’s why a film such as Egoist is so important. While it doesn’t tackle heavier political themes or even concern itself with the state of laws governing Japan’s gay community, it showcases a very real depiction of gay love that anyone with an open heart and mind will find beautiful.
The film isn’t free of issues, but those stem more from editing and story choices rather than offensive depiction.
Director: Daishi Matsunaga
Release Date: October 27, 2022 (TIFF), July 16, 2023 (NYAFF)
Egoist is very much a slice-of-life film. While there is a plot with a very clear three-act structure, a good portion of the film focuses on the more mundane aspects of a relationship that form the backbone of true love. Love is a big theme here and the question of whether someone’s selfish desire for affection can be considered truthful or good is brought up a lot.
Taking place in current-day Tokyo, a gay man named Sosuke Saito (Ryohei Suzuki) has been struggling to find a real connection with someone. He lives a rather lavish life thanks to his job affording him plenty of cash and he spends evenings palling around with his other gay friends, but he is lacking something. He wants a hot boy toy to fool around with and potentially fill the void that the death of his mother left him with many years prior.
As it so happens, Saito’s friends know of a rather handsome personal trainer named Ryuta Nakamura (Hio Miyazawa) that might just fit the bill. After an intense first workout, Sosuke and Ryuta quickly form a bond and begin seeing each other outside of the gym. When things become a bit serious, though, Ryuta pulls away due to his past trauma and current lifestyle as a male escort. Not wishing to lose this connection, Sosuke offers to pay Ryuta a rather hefty fee every month so that they can be exclusive.
At first, I thought that Egoist was going to be a rather lame take on something like Pretty Woman. For decades in cinema, sex work hasn’t been looked at as a life choice, but as a bad habit that people fall into after suffering some kind of loss. Think of how many stories you’ve heard of where some man comes and saves an otherwise nice lady from her life of debauchery and you’ll see what I mean. Sex work is usually demonized in films.
Thankfully, Egoist does something completely different with that setup. Sosuke does indeed “save” Ryuta from his current life, but it comes from a place of selfishness. Sosuke has struggled for the majority of his life with making connections and only really knows how to pay his way to success. He mentions multiple times during the film that he is “well off” and it’s not meant as a brag but as a justification for why he is making certain choices.
Where Egoist goes in a completely new direction, however, is with where the story develops. Both Sosuke and Ryuta genuinely fall in love. Even though Sosuke was initially looking at his relationship in a transactional manner, he now wants to spend the rest of his life with Ryuta. Egoist wants you to ponder if a good deed coming from a selfish place can still be considered good.
That wasn’t initially clear to me as the film never frames Sosuke as deceptive or malicious. At first, I thought maybe the title of Egoist was ironic. Sosuke winds up dedicating so much of his time to Ryuta that he is practically depicted as a saint. It was when I looked back over the beginning of the movie that I remembered their entire relationship started from a desire to simply find sex.
The sex part is another avenue where Egoist excels. This is the first production in the Japanese film industry where an intimacy coordinator was used. It’s also the first to have an LGBTQ+ director. Both of those factors result in a series of sex scenes that feel realistic rather than tawdry. A few can be intense and there isn’t any shying away from men being on top of other men, but the scenes never become pornographic. It’s just a natural part of any gay relationship shown as naturally as film will allow.
All of this is wonderfully acted by the two leads, Ryohei Suzuki and Hio Miyazawa. While Suzuki is a veteran actor with more credits to his name, he works wonderfully against Miyazawa, a rising star in Japan’s film industry. They have such natural chemistry with each other that you’d believe they were longtime collaborators. I suppose a certain level of trust would be required to wind up in some of the compromising positions that each character lands in, but neither actor looks out of place or uncomfortable with the work they are given. It plays out exquisitely.
That power also carries over to a surprise third-act twist that changes the nature of Sosuke’s relationship with Ryuta. I won’t spoil what that twist is. Still, Sosuke becomes more acquainted with Ryuta’s mother, Taeko (Sawako Agawa), and Egoist becomes about the nature of maternal relationships when you’ve lost your own.
All throughout is the undercurrent of love. Sosuke attempts to make up for the time stolen from him with his own mother by paying for Ryuta’s mom’s life. She is initially reluctant, but eventually accepts and even grows to love Sosuke as a second son. She was aware of the nature of his and Ryuta’s relationship and accepts it, even if Sosuke isn’t sure he deserves that acceptance.
It’s a rather beautiful film, even if there are a few missteps when it comes to characterization. Ryuta, for one, is maybe the most perfect person ever. While engaging in sex work after dropping out of high school frames him as a victim of circumstance, he never once gets angry or jealous. His upbringing has him refusing certain gifts from Sosuke, but he eventually gives in and allows the love Sosuke is buying to become genuine.
Sosuke visits his father a few times during the film and while there is clearly a strained relationship there (one replete with his father not even being aware of Sosuke’s sexuality), it doesn’t lead to anything. Sosuke gets some knowledge about when his mother passed, but the situation doesn’t seem to factor into the overall story. For that matter, we only get a single flashback to Sosuke’s youth and it’s so short that it doesn’t quite offer any insight into his current character.
Those are really the only issues I can think of. Egoist is a remarkably economical film in that there isn’t much music or visual trickery with its shot composition, but that works to show how raw and real this relationship is. With the film being based on a semi-autobiographical novel from author Makoto Takayama, that makes sense. He lived some of this, so why should a director embellish reality?
Truly, the power of Egoist is in how authentic it feels. One could say that it doesn’t need to be an LGBTQ film, but then having a depiction of gay romance being so normal and wonderful will do a lot to help convince naysayers of its reason to exist. When two men will fight tooth and nail to love each other, even if the circumstance of their meeting was maybe not so honest, why are we denying them the right to love?