What she Likes (2021) review [22nd Nippon Connection]

Introduction

In recent years, more and more Japanese queer films are made. While some are merely a visualizing of female BL-fantasies, many others try to offer a realistic glance at the position of the homosexual subject within Japanese society. Shogo Kusano’s What She Likes is one of the latter narratives. Yet, can his visualisation of Naoto Asahara’s Kanojo ga Sukina Mono wa Homo de Atte Boku dewa Nai please the spectator?

Review

One day, at the bookstore, Jun Ando (Fuju Kamio) runs into Sae Miura (Anna Yamada) and discovers her interest in BL-manga and male homosexual fantasies. He takes her manga and promises to keep her interest in such fantasies a secret. Jun tells his lover Makoto Sasaki (Tsubasa Imai) about the encounter. He warns him that shared secrets can lead to intimacy.

Not much later, Sae invites Jun to join a BL-manga event and introduces him to her ‘sister’ Nao Sakura (Toko Miura) and her boyfriend Hayato Kondo (Daichi Watanabe), a hair and make-up stylist. And then, one day on the Ferris wheel, she musters up her courage and confesses her love. Jun, despite being gay, accepts.

What She Likes (20210) by Shogo Kusano

With What she Likes, Shogo Kusano shows how certain ideological discourses of the Other can force subjects to hide their own subjective reality behind an image that fits the mould of ‘heterosexual normality’, but also that love can only be established between two subjects by radically accepting the other’s Otherness.

The conflict between the discourses of normality that structures the Other and the subject that does not fit within them is beautifully highlighted by how most high-schooler think about sex and what function it gains within such adolescent social fabrics. Sex for a male high-schooler is, in short, not about reproduction, but about raising one’s social status and impressing one’s semblable with something that proofs his phallic desirability. It is the reality of performing the sexual act and ‘owning’ a girlfriend that commands respect and installs a subtle hierarchy of desirability and imaginary phallic possession among boys. The presence of such dynamic explains, at least partially, the need certain subjects feel to hide their sexual preference and pretend they are interested in the imaginary game of impressing each other with fantasies of phallic possession.

What She Likes (20210) by Shogo Kusano

Yet, the actual cause of such a need lies in the Other. The need for the homosexual subject to hide his own sexuality is, as Kusano beautifully highlights, indirectly imposed by the signifiers that linger within the social field – signifiers that also underpin the adolescent dynamic at school. These signifiers, whether images of happy straight couples or advertisements for family funerals, celebrate the supposed ‘normality’ of traditional heterosexual within Japanese society. With the Japanese population in decline, the omnipresence of such imagery and signifiers can even be understood as a subtle attempt to impose ‘heteronormality’ on all those who wander within the Japanese Other – as language and as society. The presence of certain imaginary intuitions  – e.g. you can identify a homosexual by the look in their eyes, …etc. –  and other prejudices play an instrumental role in maintaining an atmosphere where it is safer, for the homosexual subject, to keep his sexuality hidden within the safe confines of a personal closet.

So what makes Jun accept Sae’s love-confession? One the one hand, it is the overly-present societal atmosphere of hetero-normality that forces him – I don’t want others to think I’m gross and I don’t want to think that I’m gross. On the other hand, it is the fact that within Japanese society the only way to satisfy one’s desire to have a family and become father is via the heterosexual familial structure that makes him embrace her confession. It is, moreover, the idea that he can only way to please his mother with a hetero-sexual normal life that compels him to invest in his relationship with Sae.  

What She Likes (20210) by Shogo Kusano

Yet, can he, through signifiers and acts, maintain the lie of having a sexual and romantic desire for her? It should be obvious that even if Jun tries to live a fantasy of heteronormality with Sae, his subjective conflict cannot but persist and the reality of his sexual desire cannot be denied.  To put it differently, what will happen when the truth of his sexual desire is found out by Sae? How will Sae react when she finds out that what she loved was, essentially, Jun’s hetero-normal social facade? Can she cope with the fact that she was duped into a fiction of romantic happiness by Jun’s signifiers and acts (Narra-note 1)? Maybe, the destructive event of his homosexuality  being found out can actually lead to a formation of an inter-subjective bond between them, a bond that tries to reach beyond the deceptive nature of ego’s and the societal ideals imposed by discourses of ‘normality’ and allows each subject to accept the other’s radical Otherness.    

Before analysing the composition of the narrative, we want to add two digressions. First, can we not read the visualisation of Jun’s conversations with Mr. Fahrenheit (Hayato Isomura) as being echoes Jun’s inner dialogues? Does Mr. Fahrenheit not, in a certain way, represent Jun’s hidden ego, who is driven by a desire to shatter the need for wear such a deceptive social face. If so, the dialogues between them, between Jun’s social ego of heterosexual masculinity and (what functions as) his supressed critical ego elegantly illustrate how the Other and its dominant discourses is a source of a subjective conflict, complicating the subject’s ability to accept one’s own sexuality and invite him to a life of self-loathing.  

What She Likes (20210) by Shogo Kusano

Second, Miura’s interest in BL-manga illustrates is that a society unwilling to give homosexuality their righteous place – i.e. the right to exist within society as subject – goes hand in hand with the blossoming of an imaginary space that allows people to gain pleasure from ‘forbidden’ homosexual romance fantasies. Yet, these phantasmatic creations have, in most cases, little to do with the subjective reality of homosexuals within the societal field (General-note 1). This radical division allows Jun to ease his partner’s worries by saying that what Sae likes is not him as subject, but the phantasmatic image of a homosexual as depicted in her favourite manga’s.  

The composition of What She Likes stands out due to Kusano’s play with silences, the creation of elegant contrasts between Jun’s inner-voice and his vocalized speech, and his decision to not visualize certain emotional moments, which do not only to add drama into the unfolding of the narrative, but also emphasizes Jun’s conflictual position for the spectator. Other visual and auditive decorations (subtle shakiness) used to enliven the composition and heighten the emotional stakes.

What She Likes (20210) by Shogo Kusano

 

By applying musical accompaniment, either to echo the pleasure that thrives within certain sequences – i.e. Yusuke, Sae, Kurumi (Akana Ikeda), Jun and Ryohei‘s visit to a theme park, or to highlight the intimate and romantic import of certain moments for certain characters, Kusano does not only keep the spectator engaged but also creates an emotional fabric that allows him/her to ride the emotional waves of the narrative.

Yet, more than anything, what allows What She Likes to touch the spectator is the performances of the two leads. Anna Yamada, in short, steals the show. Her natural and layered performance convincingly illustrates that being in love blinds the subject for the signs that signal the other’s lack of romantic interest. In a certain sense, it is the fantasy of becoming a couple that Sae imposes on Jun that renders her unable to encounter Jun as subject.

Fuju Kamio’s performances is great because he, despite the overly-charming presence of Yamada in the narrative’s spaces, succeeds in having merely a faint chemistry with her. With his performance – i.e. the way in which he delivers his signifiers and makes his body present – Kamio installs a sensible distance between him and the others that does not stop echoing a disinterest in the heterosexual game of romance.

What She Likes is a great narrative. Not only does Kusano’s narrative trace how the fabric of signifiers that structure Japanese society elegantly impose its heterosexual ideal on the subjects that dwell within it, but also that the thing called love is, radically, about that what in the other is and remains Other. By juxtaposition these two themes, Kusano succeeds in delivering a quite atypical romance narrative.       

Notes

General-note 1: This radical difference is also emphasized by the fact that most BL-manga are written by women and most fans are female. In a certain sense, the homoerotic fantasy depicted within these manga is female in nature.  

Narra-note 1: When the truth of his sexuality is found out by Ono and the other students, the narrative beautifully visualizes the destructive impact of a hetero-normal societal field refuses to accept the homosexual Otherness of others and Jun’s passage-a-l’acte. Such Otherness is, as What She Likes beautifully shows, easily abused by the subjects, who proudly bathe in the fantasy of ‘normality’, for their own phallic pleasure.

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