Afternoon Breezes is a landmark 1980 film by director Hitoshi Yazaki that may be the first mainstream, overtly gay-themed movie in Japanese cinematic history. It was Yazaki’s premiere work, prefacing both his notable career and the sub-genre of LGBTQ films in Japan. The pic was a moderate success upon its release but Yazaki would not make another feature until 1991’s March Comes Like a Lion. That feature, about amnesia, garnered strong critical reviews and firmly established Yazaki as an important figure in the Japanese New Wave of the 1990s. His signature style became atmospheric, elegiac work, though later it would morph into a more commercial approach. He has continuously worked with top-line Japanese talent, especially in Strawberry Shortcakes (2006), Sweet Little Lies (2010), Furin Junai (2011) and Mabunso (2016).

Japan had seen gay-themed pinku (softcore porn) films in the 70s and allusions to gay relationships in prior work but it’s hard to think of a Japanese flick with a front-and-center gay premise before Afternoon Breezes. There is apparent gay attraction in Nagisa Oshima’s legendary work Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (1983), but it would still be awhile before many mainstream films would openly explore LGBTQ themes. Rasen no Sobyo (1991), a documentary made in collaboration with Shohei Imamura’s film school, was perhaps the first mainstream doc to explore gay life in Japan. From there Japan’s first openly gay director making gay work, Ryosuke Hashiguchi, burst onto the scene with A Touch of Fever (1993). The theme then became a sub-genre in Japan, sometimes authentically made by gay/lesbian directors and sometimes not. Interestingly, the brilliant Love/Juice (2000) mirrored Afternoon Breezes in narrative, though its coolness was clearly of the new millennium.

Afternoon Breezes tells the story of roommates Natsuko (Aya Setsuko) and Mitsu (Naomi Ito). Natsuko is a lesbian and secretly in love with her charming roomie. But Mitsu has a boyfriend and shows no signs of switching lifestyles. Natsuko seduces the guy in an attempt to break them up but Mitsu’s reaction is to throw Natsuko out. Smitten to the point of obsessiveness, Natsuko starts to stalk her beloved. Infused with sense of ennui, longing and despair, Afternoon Breezes is a powerhouse of unrequited love. Yazaki effectively uses silence and affective camerawork to communicate a sense of hopeless desire. It’s not uplifting but it’s a fine piece of cinematic expression.

Afternoon Breezes (Japanese Title: Kazetachi no gogo)
105 min; Screening at K’s Cinema from March 2 and March 9 at UPLINK-Kichijoji