Credit: Strand Releasing
by Fred Barrett Featured Film Horizon Line

Egoist — Daishi Matsunaga

April 16, 2024

Daishi Matsunaga’s gay romantic drama, Egoist, based on Makoto Takayama’s autobiographical novel of the same name, follows Kōsuke Saitō (Ryohei Suzuki), a gay fashion magazine editor in his 30s, who, in spite of his good looks, a life cushioned by material comforts, and a close-knit circle of gay circle of friends, is coping with personal demons. On the one hand, he is still emotionally reeling from the death of his mother when he was a teenager. On the other, his romantic life is more or less nonexistent. Things change when he hires a personal trainer, Ryūta Nakamura (Hio Miyazawa), with whom he has immediate chemistry, and a romance soon blossoms between the two.

Of course, their picture-book relationship runs into issues eventually: aside from having to hide their love from Ryūta’s mother, the young personal trainer also reveals a secret to Kōsuke that puts their future in jeopardy. While the two-hour film until this point operates with all the weight of a breezy, low-stakes television romance — a montage that shows us the couple’s growing intimacy and deepening feelings for each other screams assembly-line J-drama — Ryūta’s confession introduces a massive tonal shift to the narrative, one that’s only made more severe when tragedy finally strikes and forces Kōsuke to finally come to terms with the issues that have been plaguing him all his life.

Navigating these two moods would likely prove a challenge to even the most capable of filmmakers, so one can perhaps forgive Matsunaga for not quite being able to segue from one into the other. Problem is, it’s not so much that the shift isn’t pulled off effectively — though, to be clear, it isn’t — it’s that, even taken on their own, neither of the film’s two parts works particularly well. It might well just be an issue of sensibility: Egoist is worlds removed from the thorny, provocative explorations of queer identity and sexuality found in the work of Japanese New Wave filmmakers like Toshio Matsumoto or Nagisa Ōshima — Kōsuke’s career also happens to mirror that of Ryuzaki (Takeshi Itō), the tortured, masochistic protagonist of Hisaysu Satō’s 1989 gay psychological drama Muscle.

Obviously, not every gay film made today needs to look to the works of decades past — as there is diversity in the gay community, so too should there be room for diversity of expression, including ones that are perhaps a little more well-behaved — and to be fair, Matsunaga does graze some more substantive questions about life as a gay man in Japan, but those are relegated to the relatively brief scenes of Kōsuke hanging out with his friends whose discoursing is rather tidy and sociological, an ailment Egoist has in common with a lot of contemporary cinema. The sex scenes, meanwhile, fail to capture the kind of lust, the kind of desire that the film seems to imply is conjured whenever the two lovers get physical. Shot with all the verve of a prime-time TV commercial, the scenes will likely provide fodder for fans of the Yaoi genre, also known as boy’s love, but they fail to communicate anything particularly passionate or sensual about the trysts they depict.

This lifelessness is a recurring issue throughout, which not only keeps the third-act twist from achieving any kind of potency, but also banishes the two lead performances to an emotional no man’s land: Matsunaga’s style is too placid, too serene to really connect his images to his characters’ inner lives. As such, the romance feels mannered, the challenges insignificant, and the tragedy contrived. In the hands of a different director, Egoist could’ve well been a rousing melodrama, but with Matsunaga’s antiseptic touch, the film offers little outside of easy-on-the-eyes blandness.

DIRECTOR: Daishi Matsunaga;  CAST: Ryôhei Suzuki, Yuko Nakamura, Hio Miyazawa, Iori Wada;  DISTRIBUTOR: Strand Releasing;  IN THEATERS: April 19;  RUNTIME: 2 hr.