メゾン・ド・ヒミコ「Mezon do Himiko」
Release Date: August 27th, 2005
Running Time: 131 mins.
Director: Isshin Inudo
Writer: Aya Watanabe (Screenplay),
Starring: Kou Shibasaki, Joe Odagiri, Min Tanaka, Hidetoshi Nishijima, Hiroki Murakami, Hirokazu Inoue, Chiharu Muraishi, Kira Aoyama, Hiroshi Okochi, Shinichi Hatori,
La Maison de Himiko is the title of the film and the name of the retirement home, for gay men, which is at the centre of the narrative. It is a place where people are open and accepting of others when the outside world can be judgemental and sometimes cruel and it is the place where one young woman finds herself coming to terms with the darkest of emotions that have hampered her life.
It all starts with Saori (Kou Shibasaki), the unhappiest woman in town. She is working two dead end jobs, her most important being secretarial one at Nippon Paint, a small firm where the boss, Hosokawa (Nishijima) is sleeping with his office staff and she isn’t paid enough to put up with her boorish colleagues. Desperate for cash to pay off debts she is considering working for a phone sex company when a handsome young man named Haruhiko (Joe Odagiri) appears at her workplace with an intriguing offer of a paying job – every Sunday she will work as a maid at La Maison de Himiko, a seaside retirement home for gay men, where she will help run errands and look after its dying owner, Himiko.
Saori flatly refuses. It’s a routine she has heard before. What’s the problem?
Her estranged father is the owner of La Maison de Himiko. Her father is Himiko (Min Tanaka), he is gay and Haruhiko is his boyfriend. Saori cannot forgive her father for abandoning his family and for his decision to be openly gay.
Haruhiko ups the offer and states that there is an inheritance and with her father about to die she will soon come into some money. With little cash and no decent jobs on the horizon, Saori takes up the offer. What she finds at the house is a space for a group of men to be themselves be it reserved and quiet or outrageous and camp. This space soon opens up for her as she begins to deal with feelings for her father and her future.
Writer Aya Watanabe and director Isshin Inudo quietly lay out Saori’s journey from anger to acceptance (or near enough) with the ease and gentleness of seasoned professionals, allowing the story to flow naturally and rather conventionally. The audience delves into the story through Saori’s perspective as she, and by extension the audience, discovers that people are complex and it is best to understand the emotions that make up humans. This realisation, in turn, helps Saori unburden herself from her emotional problems. While gay issues are dealt with, the film dovetails these into more complex and universal ones about acceptance of difference and other people’s feelings. This is neatly laid out by the script and in the visual language and performances in the film.
Saori begins the film trapped in miserable circumstances.
In a society where people are sensitive to emotions and make sure to regulate them in public to maintain their roles, Shibasaki gleefully plays a character whose physicality broadcasts her inner anger to the world with little regard for what people may think. She uses comic and dramatic skill to show Saori’s inner turmoil in the fullest sense. Slight in build but curdling with an ocean of inner ire she slouches around in every scene as if powered by resentment over having to engage with life. Forget makeup, she has a permanent frown plastered on her face. Her manner is curt and her disgust for others, and herself, is plain to see.
It is understandable when you consider her broken family background and her present financially straitened circumstances. Her apartment, just glimpsed is cramped and rather bland while her office work is pure monotony with a predatory boss looking to sink his claws into his female workers. Most of the shots of her city life are of drab, rainy, humid anonymous urban locations.
When she travels to the coastal town where La Maison de Himiko is, the atmosphere of the film changes into a more vibrant one and Saori begins to open up in her new surroundings. The titular house rests on the coast basking in the warm embrace of the sun for most of the day. The interior of the house is refined, with fine art adorning walls and rococo furniture for people to use as they read Ed McBain’s novels and watch Lady Lawyer Mystery Files. Most of all, it is a place that encourages people to be together as can be seen by sofas, the long dining tables and the swimming pool and an open kitchen where everyone contributes to the cooking and eating together.
The men who reside in the building are a mixture of archetypes given a slice of backstory or a few traits that makes them feel a little more real and diverse – the ex-yakuza, the school teacher, transvestites – than stock clichés and these people bring their experiences and nuanced opinions to the story, helping each other and Saori in the process. These personal experiences and the items they bring such as family photographs, reminisces of mothers or children, past jobs, all humanise a supporting cast who play their roles with coolness and respect.
Saori’s engagement with the men at la Maison de Himiko is initially one of
suspicion and sometimes outright hostility and disgust with a few homophobic epithets thrown in. As she gets to know the band of gays she works for, this hatred is soon mixed with grudging interest that gradually becomes acceptance and friendliness as she becomes part of a supportive group of people who act as a family and she gets to know the men who reveal more
about themselves to this outsider. Of course, being a gay-themed film there is clubbing (plus a fun dance sequence to the tune “Mata au hi made” “Till we Meet Again”) and dress up for the characters to engage with but these serve to show the prejudices that they suffer as heterosexual characters of different types show up to pour scorn on some of the loveliest and shyest characters.
At this point, both Saori and the audience have gotten to know the characters and we suddenly get a taste of what it’s like to feel an individual threaten to tear your social standing apart because of your sexuality. Sympathy arises as La Maison de Himiko has allowed the audience to see that these men are people and thus complex and lets us make the connection for ourselves with little manipulation.
This is a lesson that Saori learns herself when she comes to understand her father Himiko and his lover Haruhiko are no longer easily dismissed as the root cause of her misery.
Min Tanaka, swathed in feminine robes, makes few appearances as Himiko, bedridden as the character is, but his presence is felt throughout the film thanks to his strong and cool masculinity which gives the sense of an unshakable and uncompromising belief in what he is and has done. Himiko’s patience with Saori and her growing understanding of the characters makes her learn that she needs to reconsider him and her own mother before jumping to conclusions about abandonment and what her parents meant to each other.
As Haruhiko, the handsome Joe Odagiri is smoking with sensual and dangerous vibes but it is his vulnerability, the moments of fluid sexuality that undercut the binary oppositions and social definitions that people cling to, and the uncertainty with life after Himiko’s passing that provides the conduit for Saori to understand these men on more profound levels and thus, let go of her anger in a series of emotionally cathartic scenes that build up to an ultimate but low-key epiphany.
When we first see Saori it is with a scowl but as the film moves forward and she shows the difficulty she has in coming to terms with things and our last sight of her is with a beaming smile.
The story is not perfect. There are a few raging stereotypes and clichéd gay-themed story tropes running around such as flouncing drag queens and a homophobic bully who may be uncertain in his heterosexuality. These elements give the story a slightly schematic feeling, as if boxes are ticked as gay-related issues are neatly dealt with and audience expectations met, but they are couched between the other, more down-to-earth characters and there is that wonderful Japanese ambiguity and darkness that gives it an edge. Happiness for the characters is never certain, forgiveness is not something easily found, total acceptance of homosexuality is something these men may never see in their lifetime but as long as Le Maison de Himiko remains open and they look out for each other, things will work out.
Indeed, this is the wonderful thing about the film. The titular Le Maison de Himiko genuinely does become a safe place that is a joy to hang out at as Saori discovers for herself and it is thanks to the direction of Isshin Inudo and the actors that we understand why. There is the sense that the filmmakers care about the people on screen and just allow them to be who they are, regardless of their faults and prejudices, and to learn and grow as the get to know each other. It is hard to resist joining in their lives and caring thanks to the actors’ performances which are spirited and engaging and as Saori makes a return trip to the house at the end of the film, you’ll wish you could join her and spend more time with the residents.
My Japanese teacher let me borrow the film and I’m pretty happy to say it’s a great title and one any audience member can return to and enjoy. I enjoy watching Kou Shibasaki (formerly a lead in teen-centric films like Battle Royale and One Missed Call, wasted in her latest film roles like Bolt from the Blue and 47 Ronin) and Joe Odagiri (Mushishi, Adrift in Tokyo) so it’s great to see them work together in this film.
I cannot stress enough that with this film Kou Shibasaki proves that she is a fantastic actor. The way she stays in character and paints a picture of misery that gradually morphs into happiness and freedom as the film progresses, the way she matches gazes with characters and shows the troubled emotions she has, is all convincing and moving.
I have reviewed one other film by director Isshin Inudo and that is Zero Focus.
Here’s that delightful dance sequence I mentioned earlier: “Mata au hi made” “Till We Meet Again” by Ozaki Kiyohiko remixed by Yoshihiro Sawasaki.
Here’s the original song:
Much like the titular Maison de Himiko, the film offers a safe space for people to relax and be in the presence of friends.