Egoist. The title seemingly belies this love story. From the vantage point of today’s incessantly narcissistic and increasingly toxic dating/relationship culture, Egoist is the exact opposite of what it claims to be. Directed by Daishi Matsunaga and based on an autobiographical novel penned by author Makoto Takayama (who championed gay rights and same sex marriage) before his death in 2020, Egoist is a beautifully crafted tale with empathetic and highly sensual performances from veteran Ryohei Suzuki and the up-and-coming Hio Miyazawa. Together, they create a gay relationship that’s sexy, nurturing, endearing, supportive and all the other adjectives often missing from on-screen stories about heterosexual love. In Japan, hetero love stories are often cynical, snarky or curiously asexual.
For the past 20 years or so, the Japanese film industry seemed to revel in convincing us that hetero love is destined to become abusive, fade out or end in disaster. That same industry though, is much kinder to gay lovers. Egoist is no exception. “I don’t know what love is,” confesses the protagonist in one scene and the mother of his boyfriend replies: “That doesn’t matter. My son and I both felt your love and that’s good enough for us.”
Ryohei Suzuki, who has carved out a career playing imminently likable, stand-up kind of guys, takes on the role of gay fashion mag editor Kosuke. Kosuke loves designer clothes, good coffee, interior decor and retro diva music. He’s an unabashed hedonist who also knows exactly how attractive he looks. When he visits his childhood home in a small coastal town in Chiba prefecture, the boys that used to make fun of his “gayness” in junior high have turned into paunchy, middle-aged men while Kosuke gives every indication that he has just been transported from Paris Fashion Week. But a night out with his gay buddies convinces Kosuke that he needs to work on his body more and hires the highly recommended, 24-year old Ryuta (Miyazawa) as a personal trainer. The two connect from the get-go with Kosuke telling Ryuta what a beautiful face he has, and Ryuta returning the compliment with praises of the older man’s “wonderful physique.” Miyazawa’s performance here is playful and innocent while his pale skin and dewy eyes distract Kosuke from finishing his sit-ups.
You know the pair are going to hook up (it happens after the second training session) and in no time they’re red hot lovers. But their relationship switches lanes from sheer pleasure to anxious-about-money. Ryuta has been supporting a sick mom (Sawako Agawa) for close to a decade now, dropping out of high school to work and bring home the miso. Kosuke for his part, lost his mom to illness when he was 14 and has been missing her ever since. “I’m so envious that you get to do things for your mom,” he says to Ryuta and after making passionate love in Kosuke’s tastefully decorated apartment, presents Ryuta with an expensive treat to bring home to his mother.
So far, so devoted and charming. So we’re thrown when the relationship takes a nose dive and Ryuta tells his lover that “this is the last time I can see you.” Turns out Ryuta has been a sex worker as soon as he quit high school, to supplement whatever meager wages a teenager can make. Ryuta tells Kosuke that he has developed feelings for his lover that gets in the way of his professional sex work, so he has to end it. Kosuke is devastated. After cyberstalking Ryuta, Kosuke makes him an offer: he will pay a monthly 100,000 yen to be Ryuta’s exclusive client. It’s on Ryuta to make whatever extra money he needs to support his mother.
Ironically, the 100,000 yen Kosuke intended to be an equalizer in their relationship tips the scales in a disastrous direction. To show his gratitude to Kosuke, Ryuta quits sex work and personal training for other gigs, like sorting industrial waste during the day and washing dishes at a restaurant by night. Ryuta is so tired that when he goes over to see Kosuke he falls asleep without having sex. His hands – once so soft and pale, become hard and scarred from all the manual labor. And then Ryuta’s mom collapses from back pains and is taken to the hospital. Kosuke steps in and promises to help again this time by buying a car for Ryuta so he can drive his mom to doctor’s appointments.
Director Matsunaga guides the story through each tier of the Kosuke/Ryuta dynamic, lingering on and dissecting the crucial moments that mark all the things that could have been, but never came to pass. At times, these are so wrenching I had to avert my gaze from the screen and clutch at my hands.
With its cold, often harsh lighting and unapologetic close-ups, Egoist feels like a documentary about the ties that bind and keep us together but how those same ties can destroy the very thing we cannot live without. Kosuke’s love for Ryuta was real and yet Egoist tells us how he pushed his young lover to the edge by pressuring him to adopt an over the top work ethic – all in the name of a maternal bond that he himself was missing.
Takayama’s original novel addresses this issue head-on by having Kosuke suffer through bouts of self-doubt: does he really love Ryuta or is he a raging egoist? Or maybe the act of loving someone is just a way of loving oneself? Kosuke has plenty of time to stew in his angst. He’s always gazing in the mirror or selecting the shirt du jour from his splendid closet, just as obsessed about looking sharp as he is about showing some love for Ryuta and his mother. In the meantime, Ryuta is swabbing dishes, bent over a dirty sink.
In the end though, you get the feeling that Kosuke is not nearly as egocentric as Ryuta’s own mom. The woman doesn’t lift a finger to help her son though she must know how tired he is. It’s also baffling that she never stopped her son from dropping out of high school or how unconcerned she was about Ryuta’s future when he was a teenager. That’s child abuse right there.
Lovers shouldn’t be held responsible for one’s happiness and well-being. But parents are accountable for how their kids fare as adults. Ryuta’s mother, egoist that she is, refuses to even acknowledge that.