His (2020) review [Nippon Connection 2021]

Introduction

Rikiya Imaizumi, one of the leading directors dealing with the complex thing called romance, is back with – how can it surprise us – another romance narrative. Yet, while most of his narrative up until now have dealt with hetero-sexual romance (like Just Only Love (2019)), His deals with homosexual romance.   

Review

After living in Tokyo for many years, Shun (Hio Miyazawa) decides to live a peaceful life in a rural area. One night, he dreams about his fellow student Nagisa Hibino (Kisetsu Fujiwara) and the end of his high school romance with him.

The same day, Ogata (Keiichi Suzuki), while passing him while he is trying to take a nap at the river, informs him that a young guy who used to live in town came back to the village. Not that much later, he meets Nagisa and his daughter Sora (Sakura Sotomura) at his house. He is going to divorce his wife Rena (Wakana Matsumoto) and needs a place to stay.

His (2020) by Rikiya Imaizumi

His is a narrative that explores two different relations, the relation between Shun and Nagisa and the one between Nagisa and Rena. Both relations are, in a certain way, broken.

The relation between Shun and Nagisa is a broken due to the past break-up between them. It is especially Shun that is, after all this time, still a hurt subject. It is this pain that he still carries from the break-up that renders him unable to welcome Nagisa as a subject. This is made evident by how he reacts to Nagisa’s sudden appearance. Shun’s reaction is, in fact, double-sided: it is subtly driven by a not-yet extinguished romantic fantasy and marked by a certain non-understanding – “Then why did you come here?”. In truth, it is this lingering romantic fantasy, a fantasy that determines Shun’s subjective functioning (e.g. his distance towards Nagisa), that imprisons him in this state of non-understanding and makes it difficult for him to meet his former lover as subject (Narra-note 1).

Nagisa is, in this respect, marked by a reluctance to confess the true reason for his sudden appearance. He tries to hide the romantic desire that compelled him to visit his former lover Shun after all these years. Yet, when Nagisa’s drunk, the physical act of trying to kiss Shun reveals, in a very direct way, the true desire that compelled him to re-connect with Shun (Narra-note 2).   

His (2020) by Rikiya Imaizumi

Given their respective subjective positions – a position of non-understanding and one of reluctance to confess, an inter-subjective conversation is seemingly impossible. Not only are they unable, with respect to the other, to speak as a subject – things remain unsaid, but they are also unable to hear the speech-fragments that point to either their subjective pain or desire. Their relationship is, in fact, marked by a subtle kind of violence, a violence from Shun towards Nagisa. This subtle speech-violence is function of the fact that Nagisa acts ‘as if nothing happened between them’, that he avoids acknowledging Shun’s subjective pain, a pain he himself caused many years ago.  

Yet, after witnessing a certain event, Shun finds the courage to lay down his defenses – “Let’s start over.”- and create the opening for a subjective encounter to happen, an encounter that would plant the seeds to realize his romantic fantasy. Nagisa, who does not fail to hear Shun’s desire lingering in his inviting signifiers, decides to confess his true desire.       

Nagisa’s confession beautifully demonstrates how the societal context that surrounds him impacted him as subject. In fact, he became the victim of a societal system that considers homosexuality to be abnormal. Nagisa tried, due to this ‘oppressive’ societal discourse, to assume a ‘dishonest’ position of ‘societal hetero-normality’ and ‘repress’ his preferred sexual object-choice but failed (Narra-note 3). But can Shun accept Nagisa’s confession? Can he overcome the subjective pain that (still) marks him and take a chance at the romantic fantasy he could not give up (Narra-note 4)? And will Nagisa be able to not, like he once did in the past, run away from his desire?    

His (2020) by Rikiya Imaizumi

The second relation, the relation between Rena and Nagisa, is also broken. That is also why they want to divorce. During the divorce proceedings, it does not take long for the mediators and the lawyers to learn that Nagisa is currently living together with his male friend. It is in this context, that His touches upon the fact that within Japanese society the traditional family-unit is still, by definition, seen as the best environment for a child – the child ‘needs’ to be raised by a female subject that takes up the signifier ‘mother’ and a male subject assuming, for himself, the signifier ‘father’. Another idea that comes up within the proceedings of the divorce is the idea that woman is, by definition, better suited for raising children – better a mother than a father. These traditional ideas are introduced as being fixed truths of common sense, truths that force certain people to question, without any tangible proof, the viability of a male single-parent situation or a situation with two male caregivers.  

By exploring Rena’s side in the proceeding of the divorce, Imaizumi touches upon the difficulty for women to combine work and motherhood within Japanese society. This difficulty is not only function of the way the work-environment is structured – i.e. the demands of the work-environment for the subject, but also due to a societal clinging to the traditional (and archaic) idea of what motherhood should be. The antagonistic combination of the two causes the Japanese Other to have no viable solution for women who want to balance motherhood with a career. His does thus not only show how difficult single motherhood can be, but also further emphasizes how a societal system, still clinging to hollowed out archaic ideas, problematizes ‘modern’ forms of family-functioning.

His (2020) by Rikiya Imaizumi

The most important within this sour relation between Rena and Nagisa is not the direct verbal violence between them but how, within the process of divorce, Sora falls victim to the manipulation of her parents. Sora is, in fact, the sole object Nagisa and his wife are fighting over; they fight over the custody. Yet, while they fight over Sora, Sora’s own desire or wishes are ignored. She has been reduced to an object to hurt the other, the sole thing by which one can ‘win’ the divorce. Can both parties find a solution to their emotional fight that benefits Sora as subject, or will the decided solution turn her into a ‘subjective casualty’?

It is by serenely showing the process of the divorce that Imaizumi reveals that the ‘respected’ archaic societal ideas about family are outdated and why clinging to these traditional values can cause, within the confines of a divorce, subjective problems for young subjects like Sora instead of offering a fitting solution for the child to grow up in what, for the child as subject, is the most appropriate environment. At least, at one point, the spectator will wonder if Nagisa’s homosexuality will make him lose custody over Sora or if he can proof that, for Sora, a situation with two male caregivers is more appropriate for her subject to blossom.

The composition of His, a composition heavily relying on fixity, stands out due to its thoughtful but subtle play with dynamism. While dynamic shots are used here and there, Imaizumi also utilizes, albeit in rare instances, his composition to reverberate, via subtle injections of dynamism, the emotional import of certain moments for Shun or Nagisa.   

His (2020) by Rikiya Imaizumi

The expressive use of dynamism is present in the unfolding of the narrative in the present but is most evident in the framing of the initial flashback/dream signaling – and this is well-known – that these moments always have a subjective significance. This fragment of the past is visualized with a rich mix of ‘stylized’ dynamism – elegant spatial and tracking movement – and subtle but natural dynamism. Given the effectiveness of these injections of dynamism, it is somewhat disappointing that Imaizumi underutilizes this technique.  

While Hio Miyazawa and Kisetsu Fujiwara succeeds in making their romantic feelings heartwarming and genuine, it is Sakura Sotomura that steals the show. She does not only infuse an adorable charm into many fleeting moments of the narrative, but also confront us, with her charming innocence, with a truth of love that a patriarchal societal system cannot easily accept and integrate into its dynamics.   

Imaizumi’s His is a touching and heartwarming romance drama. His succeeds to captivate the spectator not only because it’s driven by romantic feelings feel genuine, but also because the truth of love is so charmingly delivered by someone not yet fully subjected to the patriarchal societal fantasy. Imaizumi’s narrative is also deeply hopeful as it highlights that the seed for change and accepting homosexual relations is already planted within Japanese society. The only thing that still needs to be done is to force this seed to blossom and inscribe the romantic equality, once and for all, into the ‘archaic’ symbolic system, i.e. the law.   

Notes

Narra-note 1: In our view, Shun’s fantasy is also partially responsible for his return to a rural area. This fantasy, lingering in his mind, forces him into a double-sided position, a position of not being able to move on and a position of waiting on his beloved other.

Another element responsible for his return, as we later learn, is his wish to hide his homosexuality. While both elements, i.e. his conscious wish and his lingering fantasy, might seem contradictory at first glance, his wish to hide is homosexuality is an attempt to avoid the confrontation with the pain of his past break-up with Nagisa and pain that his lingering fantasy might cause.

Narra-note 2: One might be surprised that Shun refuses Nagisa’s sudden kiss. Yet, various reasons can explain this refusal. First, the approach by a drunken Nagisa comes as a surprise and, secondly, despite having the fantasy of rekindling their romance, Shun is still a hurt subject, a subject who has not yet forgiven the emotional pain he was subjected to.   

Narra-note 3: The reason for Nagisa’s divorce is Nagisa’s realization that living the ‘heterosexual dream’ and hiding his guy sexuality is untruthful to his subject.

Narra-note 4: His also deals with another question, a question more societal in nature. Can the elderly people in the village accept a homosexual couple in their midst or will the discourses about hetero-sexual normality render them unable to continue to interact with them as before? The answer might surprise the spectator

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