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MOVIE REVIEW : An Epic Gay Saga From Japan : Takehiro Nakajima adroitly mixes drama with humor in the mainstream entertainment 'Okoge.'

July 21, 1993|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Takehiro Nakajima's highly entertaining "Okoge" (at the Nuart) opens at a gay beach somewhere in Japan. Two young women park themselves nearby. One of them is frankly repelled by being in the proximity of so many gay men, but the other, Sayoko (Misa Shimizu), is intrigued, especially by one good-looking couple who tenderly embrace and kiss while in the sea.

Soon Sayoko strikes up an acquaintance with the younger of the two men, Goh (Takehiro Murata), who for about a year has been having a romance with Tochi (Takeo Nakahara), who didn't come out until he was past 40 and still lives with his wife (Toshie Negishi). When Goh's mother (Noriko Sengoku) announces she's moving in with him, Sayoko offers her small apartment as a rendezvous for the lovers.

"Okoge" is thus set in motion. With elements similar to those in "Making Love," "Torch Song Trilogy" and "La Cage aux Folles" but better than any of them, "Okoge" is a well-developed mainstream movie, the kind of contemporary gay-themed film that Hollywood has yet to tackle successfully. That "Okoge"--the term refers to women who befriend gays--was a big hit in Japan with young female audiences suggests just how fed up Japanese women are with the traditional dominant Japanese male who prides himself in masking his emotions and who leads so much of his life away from home.

No art film, "Okoge" is more kitsch than Kurosawa, yet it's a solid melodrama with as much humor as pathos and which strikes a judicious balance between honest sentiment and campy, improbable over-the-top scenes, crowd-pleasers for sure. Although not completely graphic, "Okoge" leaves little to the imagination in its lovemaking scenes.

A kind of Japanese Douglas Sirk, the Hollywood director renowned for bringing style and meaning to soap opera material, Nakajima handles his many shifts in tone with aplomb and catches us up in the lives of his lovers and their friend Sayoko; they and their problems are real enough even if "Okoge" is in form a glossy all-stops-out heart-tugger. Goh and Tochi are likable men but they face a huge challenge in creating a life for themselves in a pervasively homophobic, conformist society.

Goh doesn't know how to keep his mother, who's an awful lot like Harvey Fierstein's mother in "Torch Song Trilogy," from being dumped on him by his married brother--but then Goh has not come out to his family. Similarly, Tochi fears losing his secure office job should he come out. As for Sayoko, we learn via flashbacks that she was raised in a foster home where she was molested by her foster father; no wonder she seeks gay men for companionship yet remains so vulnerable to ruthless, overpowering straight men.

For a spell, life for Goh and Tochi and Sayoko is idyllic, but by the film's end none is the same person, each having gone through so very much, and Nakajima has elicited splendid, far-ranging portrayals from his stars. In a real sense "Okoge" is an epic saga told with outrageous comic relief and a sharp satirical edge. Much of the film takes place in bars and especially a gay nightclub where Goh and Tochi's friend Tamio (Atsushi Fukazawa), a plump female impersonator, is the uninhibited star of the revue. For all its occasional raucous high-jinks, "Okoge" (Times-rated Mature for sex and for adult themes) resists the Hollywood ending it could easily get away with and ends tentatively, adhering in its final moments to the Japanese tradition of screen realism.

'Okoge'

Misa Shimizu: Sayoko

Takehiro Murata: Goh

Takeo Nakahara: Tochi

Atsushi Fukazawa: Tamio

A Cinevista release. Writer-producer-director Takehiro Nakajima. Executive producers Yoshinori Takazawa, Masashi Moromizato. Cinematographer Yoshimasa Hakata. Editor Kenji Goto. Music Hiroshi Ariyoshi. Art director Kunihiro Inomata. Sound Makio Ika. Running time: 2 hours, 2 minutes.

Times-rated Mature (for sex and for adult themes).

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