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An aimless young Japanese woman returns to her hometown and her debt-plagued mother and hatches a plan to elicit help from her absentee father—a transgender nightclub performer—in Serenade by first time writer-director Keinosuke Hara. One part domestic drama and one part save the school/gym/club/church music comedy, Serenade wraps its message of gender acceptance in so many other layers the film never gets up a full head of steam on the issue. Nonetheless, the emergence of transgender star Laverne Cox and Bruce Jenner’s highly rated interview on ABC could be indications that broader audiences are ready for more stories about the trans community—however peripheral. Art house distribution in Europe and North America is a possibility, as is a place on the global niche and LGBT festival circuits, particularly if South Korean sales agent Mirovision can find a way to correct the film’s generous use of offending language like “fairy” and “tranny.”
The story begins in stark black and white with drag bar superstar Angel (Ken Yasuda) finishing up another show, relaxing in the dressing room with her (the film never specifies how Angel refers to herself) best friend Manami (J-drama regular Risa Sudo). Angel isn’t just a drag queen, she’s transgender, and the two chat about an imminent trip to Thailand for the surgery that will complete the transition. Angel and Manami are obviously close, and there’s a sweetly wistful tone to this segment that makes much of what comes later understandable. Too much honesty and even more booze result in Manami’s pregnancy. She decides to keep the baby and relocates to a small town, and opens a “snack bar,” above which she raises their daughter alone. Cut to several years—and color photography—later, and Sayoko (relative newcomer Izumi Fujimoto) is miserable, isolated by her mother’s job (the snack bar, named after her, is effectively the town’s hostess club). Upon graduation from high school she takes off for Tokyo.
The first half of the film focusing on Sayoko’s surly solitariness and Manami’s efforts to be a good mother given her limited professional skills and options. That Sayoko’s father is transgender serves as little more than a narrative hook to get the ball rolling on a fairly conventional story about oddballs coming together to form their own kinds of families. The elderly and/or marginalized gang that are Manami’s regulars feel they’re being brushed aside in the name of progress, and come in to find a bit of comfort. Sayoko’s inability to see the bar as anything other than an embarrassment is the foundation of her personal growth. There’s not much new here, but there’s a recognizable melancholy that lends each scene—Sayoko being teased for her mother job, a wife desperate to stop her husband’s frivolous spending, two mothers understanding each other’s positions—some affecting grace notes.
Naturally things don’t go terribly well in Tokyo and Sayoko comes home to the same sad stragglers in the bar and the newly hired Ryoko (Kinako Kobayashi) who helps out. She also discovers Manami is in debt and is about to lose her home and livelihood. Knowing of Angel but not exactly who she is to her, Sayoko tracks her down asking for help: the bar is going to be turned into a drag club. Using their history together and Angel’s expertise, a few nights of sold out shows save the day, just before it’s revealed Angel’s back up singers—Sayoko and Ryoko—are “real” women and they’re exposed as frauds.
Serenade’s second half has a lighter tone and the kind of conventional elements expected of the institutional rescue sub-genre (complete with rehearsal montage), and Hara’s resolutely unchallenging script doesn’t put as much weight on Angel’s arrival as it maybe should have. When Angel comes into Manami and Sayoko’s lives, it is with marginal angst, fear, pain or even questions and reduces Serenade to a transgender story in stealth mode. It’s more a missed opportunity than a failure, as the narrative raises a load of issues that deserve consideration: How does having a child affect Angel’s perception of herself? How does she feel about the debate over authenticity? Is there a debate? But the lack of depth is to be expected given that Hara never really addresses Manami’s single parent status in provincial Japan, her low social standing or Sayoko’s reaction (other than mild surprise) to having a transgender parent.
Production on the film is polished if not terribly innovative and the performances are strong for the most part. The anonymous men that hang out at Manami’s place make a collective impression as a disenfranchised group and Kobayashi manages to inject some humanity into the requisite comic fat girl role by giving Ryoko a self-aware edge. As Sayoko, Fujimoto is hampered by a slightly underwritten character when she’s not dealing in cliché. Growing up without a strong father figure has made her into a bit of a serial monogamist with a penchant for failed romances (yawn). Thankfully Sudo and Yasuda have a nice, lived-in dynamic that makes their drunken tryst a bit more believable, and Yasuda is never less than dignified, fleshing out Angel and her strengths and weaknesses with understated nuance. Serenade may not be a trailblazer in Japanese transgender cinema but Yasuda comes close.
Production company: Pipeline
Cast: Risa Sudo, Izumi Fujimoto, Ken Yasuda, Kinako Kobayashi, You Takahashi, Shinnosuke Abe, Kokone Hamada, Ryuichi Ohura, Kazuhiko Kanayama, Ren Osugi, Hachiro Ika
Director: Keinosuke Hara
Screenwriter: Keinosuke Hara
Producer: Hidemi Satani, Manabu Shinoda
Director of photography: Kozo Shibasaki
Production designer: Etsuko Aiko
Editor: Emi Onodera
Music: Hajime Furukawa
Casting director: Kumiko Hoshi
World sales: Mirovision
No rating, 120 minutes
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The Woman King