It was the topic that drew me to this documentary. Kaoru grew up in Japan, assigned a boy at birth but always feeling like a girl. As an adult, and now called Natsuki, she narrates her early life at school and the challenges of admitting, and being accepted for, who she really is. Interspersed with reenacted drama, this is an engaging story that teaches us about gender identity and expression in Japan, and leaves us pondering about gender roles in relationships.
Through Natsuki’s experiences, we see clearly how notions of gender can be used as a stick to beat people into submission. For her it was simple. She always felt like a girl and just wanted to come to school in a skirt. When she was reluctantly allowed to, she realised there was more to gender acceptance than that, both for herself and for others.
We learn a little about gender identity and transition in Japan as Natsuki and her ‘okama’ friends talk of their experiences. Okama are, as I understand it, men who express themselves as women. If they have had any form of gender reassignment surgery then they are ‘new-half’. The delineation is an interesting one as it seems to imply that it is the surgery that is significant not the identity. This is at odds with Natsuki’s experience where her retention of ‘that’ or ‘those’ has no bearing on her sense of self.
A shining light in her story is her pragmatic mother who always accepted Natsuki’s gender identity and expression as natural. She never wavered and you can see what a difference this made for Natsuki’s self-esteem and resilience as an adult. There is a lesson there for all of us.
The movie changes pace and purpose towards the end as, story of transition told, we become a fly on the wall in the home of Natsuki and her boyfriend. Becoming almost a social realist meditation, what we see is the difficulty of navigating traditional gender roles and expectations in a home where gender experiences have been so varied. Is Natsuki’s hopelessness at housework because she was born a boy or because she was indulged by her mother? Does her boyfriend nurture because of expectation when he was growing up or just because he’s more mature than Natsuki? Who knows. The lesson is that relationships aren’t easy.
Have you seen this film? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.