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Thursday, June 7, 2018

Nippon Review: Koi to Borubakia (Love & Wolbachia)

Love and Wolbachia: Directed by Sayaka Ono. Running Time: 94 minutes. 

Rating: 3/4

            This brave, challenging documentary by Japanese director Sayaka Ono, just the second feature-length film she’s made, has quite a lot in common with Komunia, another compact, deeply intimate film whose power comes from how it simply allows us to observe the existence of its characters. 

            Initially supposed to do a short TV doc on this topic, the director found herself increasingly fascinated by the unique lives led by Japanese people who defy traditional gender and sexual roles in a country and culture still very rigidly defined by them.  She ended up spending several years filming various parts of their lives, her biggest focus being, among others, men who do drag, transwomen struggling with whether or not to fully transition, and men/women who sit directly on the fence of gender identity and don’t know where they’ll eventually land, if they ever land at all.   

            This is that rare film able to approach gender and the people struggling with it in a way that does not assume one gender role or the other; each of the people we meet are fantastically unique in how they identify themselves, and many of them have been able, often after much pain, to build an existence where they are freely themselves.  For others, it’s still a challenge; one of the transwomen filmed “dresses up” as a boy for her regular office job so as not to arouse the suspicion (and possible ire) of her boss and colleagues.  Another transwoman, herself not interested at all in a full-on physical transition, is dating another transwoman hell-bent on going all the way, and we see, briefly, how keenly that strains their relationship. 

            Throughout the years of their lives we see, the camera is clear and close to people’s faces.  Many scenes are filled with warm colors, oranges and reds commonly associated with love, friendship, welcoming intimacy.  I truly felt, from beginning to end, that I was seeing each of these people in their entirety- complex, hurting, loving, struggling, living.  This is that rare film that truly deserves to be called kaleidoscopic, because it manages to encompass so much of the spectrum of human existence and affirm the worth and dignity of every one of us, without exception or qualification. 

            It is not a film without flaws; there are so many different people shown and so many names we are given that it gets hard at times to keep track of them all, or remembering where and how they are connected to each other.  Sporadic narration by the director attempts to correct this, but these moments tend to be rather clunky, breaking the mood of a scene to state explicitly something that the movie is perfectly able to convey without words at all.  But none of this, in the end, can detract much from what is a strong, memorable, and compassionate portrait of love’s power to transcend, to bind us together despite our flaws and our struggles and make this weird, messy life still something worth seeing out to the end.   

-Noah Franc

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