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TJFF 2024: ‘Egoist’ Trades a More Powerful Story for Self-Serving Sentiment

Ryohei Suzuki as Kosuke dries the hair of Hio Miyazawa as Ryuta in Egoist.
Strand Releasing USA

Warning: This article contains spoilers for Egoist.

The number 6 with "TAC Rating" written next to it.

Watching Egoist, one of the latest LGBTQ+ movies from Japan, there’s no denying director Daishi Matsunaga’s keen eye for creating characters that come alive on the screen. No matter how big or small, each person we see carries incredible dimension, lending the world he’s letting us into a lived-in emotional depth that is immediately inviting. Combined with a stripped-back approach, everyone feels refreshingly ordinary, and we can see ourselves reflected in their experiences. The film’s main issue, however, lies in the extraordinary circumstances they continually find themselves in, which often err towards over-sentimentality.

In the film, Ryohei Suzuki plays 30-something Kosuke Saito, a stylish editor for an equally stylish fashion magazine. Clothes, he says early on, are an armour for him, signifying the successful and affluent man he has become and shielding the closeted, bullied, small-town boy he used to be. One night during dinner with his friends, all of whom are fabulously gay, Kosuke remarks on his desire to get into better shape. One of his friends refers him to a personal trainer, and that’s how he meets 24-year-old Ryuta (Hio Miyazawa).

Something between them immediately sparks when they start training together. After a few sessions — with many small but romantic gestures in between — Kosuke and Ryuta’s relationship quickly evolves from trainer and client to something more intimate. It’s the happiest either of them have ever been, but things come crashing down when Ryuta reveals a secret he’s been harbouring. What’s more, unexpected tragedy strikes, leaving Kosuke with perhaps more than he might have initially bargained for.

Belying a naturalistic premise, there are many narrative twists packed into Egoist: Ryuta’s secret is that he works as an escort in order to both support his elderly mother Taeko (Sawako Agawa) and save for a formal education in fitness training; then, Ryuta suddenly dies; afterwards, Kosuke resolves to financially support Ryuta’s mother; but, in the end, she is diagnosed with stage-four pancreatic cancer. 

Even still, the issue with the film isn’t that these events are seemingly arbitrary — life can be random, after all — but that they feel solely in service of achieving a larger goal for its protagonist. By the end of the film, we’re meant to see how Kosuke seemingly evolves from an ego-centric materialist, who proclaims to not know what love is, and becomes someone who understands that love must sometimes mean self-sacrifice and compromise.

Ryohei Suzuki as Kosuke, Sawako Agawa as Taeko, and Hio Miyazawa as Ryuta posing for a selfie in Egoist.
Strand Releasing USA

The problem is that the film fails to cement Kosuke as the titular egoist. For a movie that excels in teasing out complex character dynamics that are fascinating to watch, it also seems to rely on a flimsy initial characterization of its protagonist — Kosuke’s only real signifier that he is allegedly self-centred is the fact that he wears fancy clothes and lives in a luxurious apartment. And yet, these qualities solidify, more than anything, that he is a self-made man who overcame a troubled childhood. In fact, we quickly learn that he is actually attentive to Ryuta and his core group of friends, and compassionate towards Ryuta’s struggle to make ends meet for himself and his mother.

Which leads to Egoist’s biggest offence: killing off Ryuta halfway through the film after dedicating so much time to building his and Kosuke’s relationship, and, what’s worse, not providing any reason for it — he, an active and seemingly healthy young man in his 20s, simply doesn’t wake up one morning.

If there’s any bright side to this narrative decision, it’s that it made way for Kosuke and Taeko to bond. This is where Suzuki shines as Kosuke, deftly navigating grief and the unknown, while also relishing in this new purpose of taking care of his deceased lover’s mother (Kosuke lost his own mother to illness when he was just a teenager, so it’s heartwarming to see him basking in this new kind of love). Of course, the stand-out actor in this cast is Agawa, who plays Taeko with a quiet fire. She’s sick, but she isn’t fragile; she doesn’t have much, but she gives her all to and for her son — it will be hard not to see your own mom in her.

It almost feels as if the story between Kosuke and Taeko should have been at the fore from the very beginning. Two orphaned souls who lost their only anchor in this inexplicably cruel world, their dynamic isn’t one we’ve seen much of in queer cinema. That it took more than half the film to get here is unfortunate because this act is nothing short of beautiful to watch. Like two people who love each other dearly, holding hands at the end of the line, all you wish for is more time in this moment.


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