Throughout the history of of artistic expression, many works covering LGBT themes have been made, reacting against the status quo of society. In the short time that cinema has existed, there have been much lauded gay film makers such as Kenneth Anger and John Waters, making experimental and often quirky films representing the LGBT community. More recently, films such as A Single Man (2009), Brokeback Mountain (2005), Philadelphia (1993), Weekend (2011), Carol (2015), Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013) and the recently Oscar nominated Moonlight (2016), have explored the lives of those who happen to be different, allowing the members of these communities to have their voices heard.
In the field of animation made within the Western hemisphere, recent television shows such as Steven Universe, Adventure Time, The Legend of Korra, Gravity Falls, and movies such as Paranorman and Zootropolis, have all included various depictions of the gay community. This is sometimes done to either make it a major part of the storyline, or simply as a way to add diversity and realism to the cast.
Japan has always been curious about LGBT subject matter, dating back to the 1600s with ukiyo-e artists such as Kitagawa Utamaro, Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Nishikawa Sukenobu, Hishikawa Muronobu, Chokyosai Eiri, Hiroge and even Hokusai, who would sometimes produce art exploring gay and lesbian sexuality. Homosexuality was even encouraged amongst the samurai.
This fascination with homosexuality has continued into modern pop culture, with manga artists such as Riyoko Ikeda, Moto Hagio and CLAMP, all making series that contain various forms of homosexuality. As far as anime is concerned, shows such as Yuri on Ice, Revolutionary Girl Utena, From the New World, Wandering Son, Cardcaptor Sakura, Sweet Blue Flowers and even Sailor Moon usually have characters that are with in the LGBT sector, allowing audiences to delve into the character’s inner psyche and their relationships. Many of these shows have gone on to have big fan followings, with many fans praising these works for exploring subjects that have been otherwise considered sinful or taboo in Western culture. Within the medium, there are several sub-genres that specifically explore LGBT romance and relationships, like Shounen Ai, Shoujo Ai, Yuri and Yaoi.
On February 20th, 2016, the film Doukyusei (Classmates in English) debuted in Japanese cinemas. It was produced by A-1 Pictures (Anthem of the Heart, Anohana) and Aniplex (Fate/zero, Gurren Lagann), and it is based on a 1 volume manga by Asumiko Nakamura (Utsubora: The Story of a Novelist). It is the first feature length film directed by Shouko Nakamura, who previously directed episodes of Mawaru Penguindrum and Kill la Kill.
On a hazy summer afternoon in Tokyo, Hikaru Kusakabe, a second year music student attending an all boys school, is doing vocal practice for an upcoming chorus festival. While singing, he notices that bespectacled honour student, Rihito Sajo, is not singing, giving Kusakabe the impression that he doesn’t like singing. After classes have finished for the day, Kusakabe is just about to head off to band practice, until he decides to head back to get his lunch bag. He notices Sajo nervously reading the score notes and singing alone, and decides to join in to help. With both getting along, they agree to hang out and practice in free time. As the days go by, Kusakabe and Sajo become friends, as they offer up casual conversation, practice singing and they walk home together. Their mutual feelings for each other elevate, and on a serene night at the park, peak when least expected.
The story of Doukyusei is told in a series of character-driven vignettes, similar to 5 Centimeters per Second (2007), where over the course of the senior year, Kusakabe and Sajo’s relationship gradually becomes more intimate. As this is within the Shounen-Ai (Boy’s Love) sub-genre, questions around the relationship are brought up and explored in a gentle, tender and sedate fashion. One can compare this approach to telling a story about a gay couple to Andrew Haigh’s Weekend (2011).
While the romance story being told here isn’t anything original, through the initial attraction, tender and intimate moments, to the internal and personal conflicts, it is written very well and allows the viewer to become engaged within the relationship between the two lead characters, regardless of one’s sexual orientation. With Kusakabe being outgoing and direct, while Sajo is reserved and demure, the relationship is shown as loving, emotional, caring and touching, making their dynamic feel genuine, which is ultimately the core of the film.
Because of how much of the film focuses on the two main characters, smaller elements of the story are either not fully explored or feel rushed. Without being spoilerific, this makes one moment feel less important. There is also a minor character, Manabu Hara, the music teacher who seems very intriguing and fascinating, and is only given a small amount of screen time, a shame, since more moments of bonding would have been nice. These issues mainly stem from the 60 minute run time. While that allows the core relationship to be the focus, an extra 30 minutes to provide extra world building would have helped.
With art direction handled by Chieko Nakamura (Revolutionary Girl Utena, Yurikuma Arashi) and colour design by Ritsuko Utagawa (Baccano, Street Fighter II: The Animated Movie), Doukyusei has an aesthetic that is washed out and easy on the eyes. Although the animation is quite simplistic compared to A-1 Picture’s other work, the style fits very well in presenting a calm, sedate and gentle vibe. Rather than the design having a very overstated and brash quality, it is often understated, with many scenes having a focus on primary colours. One such example includes having a classroom surrounded by desks, curtains, walls, lockers with light watercolours, whereas the outside is plain white light, making it feel naturalistic, calm and nostalgic.
The backgrounds of the high school, the park, neighbourhoods, bars and train stations do a solid job at conveying a down to earth, naturalistic vibe that one doesn’t usually find in Western animation. The trees and plants are incredibly well detailed, in a picturesque sense that makes the world feel relatable, with an added impressionistic touch. This approach to showing the life of the characters felt organic, akin to the flashback sequences in Only Yesterday.
The character animation and designs, overseen by Akemi Hayashi (Fruits Basket, Peacemaker Kurokane) is expressive and has a delicate nuance to the character’s movements that tell us about their personality. Kusakabe’s carefree personality is shown through the loose and floaty movement of his legs while running, while Sajo’s demure and observant behaviour is presented through the way he calmly walks. Meanwhile, Asumiko Nakamura’s original art style is reflected very well with the character designs. They have been well adapted to the anime medium, having a very pleasant looking, delicate, loose and gentle aesthetic that firmly puts them in the aesthetic of bishonen (pretty boy) design. The use of split screens, highlighting important moments in the character’s life is a nice call back to the oeuvre of Osamu Dezaki (Rose of Versailles, Golgo 13), while also paying respect to the original manga.
The sound direction by Akiko Fujita (Tailenders, Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt) begins in a sedate way, starting off the film with the sound of wind and cicadas chirping in the summer heat. This ambience is at times quiet sounding, at times loud, depending on the shot and the focus they want the audience to have. In other words, prominent, yet not overbearing. Occasionally, it will disappear, which is quite noticeable, punctuating the action at specific moments, drawing the viewer’s attention to specific aspects of the story. The quality of the recordings is very clear, crisp and warm, with the arrangements being simple yet purposeful.
The voice acting is naturalistic, yet emotive, with monologues at times being half sung to show the mood of the character. The dialogue is mixed subtly, yet done in a realistic manner. It often uses close or distant mic-ing to focus attention on certain characters, rather than the shot. For example, the teacher can be in the background with students responding to his words in the foreground, yet the teacher sounds close and the students sound distant. There’s very few layers of sound used. For example, a reduced, minimalist ambience and the dialogue of the characters being the only sounds in a scene, making the scene feel like it exists in a bubble. At times this bubble can be interrupted by the soundtrack coming in and cutting out all the dialogue and ambience, creating an otherworldly vibe.
The score is composed and performed by acoustic guitarist, Kotaro Oshio, and it is the first film soundtrack of his career. The guitar playing is beautiful, relaxed and presented in a way that’s adds to the atmosphere of the film, and sounds so nice it almost feels like its playing itself. All in all, the use of sound creates a very dreamlike feel to the everyday life that the characters go through.
Doukyusei is a very simple, yet considered film with all of the elements, with nice character designs, animation, story and sound all contributing to the overall feel, without ever being overbearing. While some more world building and exploration of side characters would have been appreciated and added some extra depth, the core characters felt fleshed and their romance was effectively portrayed. Within the sector of LGBT cinema, this films a very tender, heart-warming and simple story, where the protagonists simply happen to be gay, rather than being overly preachy. In a Western world, Doukyusei is a welcome change, from the live action centric catalogue of LGBT works, using animation to beautifully portray a very genuine relationship.
If you are curious in checking out Doukyusei, a region free Blu-ray has been released by Aniplex of America with English subtitles, complete with Trailers and commercials, illustration cards and a deluxe booklet.
While it is not available in the UK, heres hoping that it gets licensed by Anime Limited, as this film deserves a decent release over here.