Once and Future Boys and Girls – Meditations on Summer Vacation 1999
January 7, 2009 in Big In Japan
Over the recent winter break, I had occasion to re-watch one of my favorite Japanese movies, Summer Vacation 1999. Wracked with anxieties about achievement, maturity, and mortality that always seem to descend as one attempts to represent the life one has led during the last year to one’s extended family, I found myself enchanted once more by the movie’s peculiar, self-contained universe founded on carefully suspended temporality and an airless yearning that seems to replace the very air the characters breath within the film’s gauzy, stylized frames.
I wanted to nestle along with the characters in this sunlit meniscus between periods of productive, progressive existence, to drift jellyfish-like in a nourishing bath formed of my own almost-formed tears wept for the ongoing and inevitable, yet still not quite yet completed, passing of the present into the past. And so, with the melancholy of the current passing year reminding us of the distance between us and our respective halcyon youths, what better time to wallow with me in the delicate excesses of an abstracted, idealized aestheticization of a youth none of us had, yet would like to believe we all share? Summer Vacation 1999 is not an incredibly well-executed film, or a hidden
gem by an unrecognized genius. Its director, Kaneko Shûsuke, has a filmography studded with B-grade erotica and monster movies both preceding and following it, and the performances by the four principals (who are the only people to appear in any part of the film, even as extras) may well consist entirely of their first, unrehearsed takes. But in this case, the limitations of the acting and production values work in the film’s favor, making it seem delicate and hermitically sealed, as if the extreme naïveté of the characters has been mapped onto all aspects of the filmmaking process. This is a film that works in a different register than conventional verisimilitude, and remains, perhaps by accident, one of the most effective translations into film of the kind of Japanese girls’ manga it is based on, despite the recent upsurge in such adaptations in recent years (such as the lavish but stultifyingly Nana). Summer Vacation 1999 was released in 1989 and set ten years in the future, a time that is itself being remembered by an unseen narrator from some
unspecified time after that (2009?). The manga it’s based on, Hagio Moto’s Thomas’s Heart, sets the action in a turn-of-the-century boy’s school in Germany, but the film’s setting is more abstracted and ambiguous. The school the boys inhabit during their fateful summer vacation is constructed in a way would read as typical of a European boarding school, except it also, for that very reason, resembles the elite boys’ schools constructed in Japan during the interwar period that consciously imitated such European institutions. Further confusing things is the understated but inescapable reminders that the film, unlike the manga, is apparently set ten years in the future and is therefore technically science fiction, despite the overwhelming tone of nostalgia evoked by the voice-over narration and the ostentatiously old-fashioned uniforms (complete with sock garters!) the characters wear even as they’re on “vacation” under no apparent adult supervision whatsoever. The technology of the school is a mannered, proto-steampunk mix of the obsolete (hurricane lanterns, grandfather clocks) and the futuristic (the strangely insectile computers the students are apparently compelled to type at for a few hours a day, the impractical modular kitchen implement that cracks and scrambles eggs for their breakfast); the result is a softly articulated but pervasive sense of temporal dislocation that amplifies the general uncanniness generated by the plot’s obsession with death, rebirth, and haunting.
The film tells the story of three children who have no families and end up spending the summer together all alone at the secluded campus of their school. A fourth is shown jumping, apparently to his death, from a cliff into a nearby lake at the beginning of the movie; we learn later that this is a consequence of an unrequited love for one of the other boys. Soon there unexpectedly arrives a transfer student, played by the same actor, whom everyone suspects to be the reincarnation of the boy who jumped into the water. The climax of the movie occurs during a heartfelt struggle between the boy who spurned the suicidal boy and the boy who is suspected of being the suicidal boy come back to life. The struggle takes place atop the precipice from which the initial fatal jump took place, and ends with one boy declaring his love for the transfer student, and the transfer student confirming that he, as everyone suspected, was indeed the other boy come back to life. They end up tumbling into the drink together, and the boy who already died once dies again, while the other boy
manages to live. The film ends with a new transfer student arriving – and he looks just like the boy who’s now died twice! I feel justified “spoiling” the plot like this because the pleasures of the movie are facilitated by the plot but not dependent on its revelation – indeed, most of the movie is fairly plotless, instead contenting itself to moon about like the characters themselves through their idyllic world of exquisite yearning. The film’s tone mixes utter falseness and absolute sincerity in a way that’s hard to describe but is immediately recognizable. This mixture is present in the kind of girls’ manga it’s based on as well; Hagio’s comic is remembered as one of the first works of “shônen-ai ” or “boy-love” comics written by and for women portraying tortured, homosexual, and generally chaste love affairs between young boys. Hagio reportedly toyed with setting her story in an all-girls’ school before switching it to all boys, a detail that dovetails nicely with Kaneko’s directorial decision to cast girls to play Hagio’s lovelorn heroes. Either way, the cross-gendering contributes to an aesthetic that depends on the audience enjoying the process of being aware of the patent falseness of the masquerade and choosing to see through it anyway. Indeed, the
awkwardness of these girls unconvincingly playing boys couples with the mannered, stiff quality of their overall performances in a way that somehow underlines the purity of the film’s aesthetics through a process of distillation through abstraction. Similarly, the ambiguous nature of the setting and time period work not to introduce complexity into the system but instead condense their most salient parts into a dream language of familiar signifiers presented at an uncanny remove, which also echoes the plotline’s obsession with a peculiar understanding of how death, rebirth, and childhood might work together as concepts. In one of the only “special effects” to occur in the film, the boy who came back from the dead kisses the boy who once spurned him and then they roll along the precipice together, the reborn boy’s voice echoing unnaturally in the soundtrack as he states the film’s basic thesis as a kind of seduction:
Let’s die together. Childhood is the best time there is, after all. Let’s die together, get reborn together, as children. And still as children, we’ll die again, become reborn again, over and over. However many times.
And indeed, this is the mesmerizing pleasure of the film as a whole, and of a sizable chunk of Japanese popular culture products as well – a play with gender that is just a part of a play with temporality itself, a celebration of a deconstruction that depends on the rigidity of what it deconstructs for its potency as fantasy. If gender roles weren’t so unyieldingly constructed, if childhood wasn’t so over-fetishized and over-regulated, if national timelines of progress and competition didn’t define the world with such insistence, these fantasies that systematically violate each of these imperatives wouldn’t hold such peculiar power. But the world is like that, and not just in Japan, and the wish persists for time to move instead in expanding circles, concentric and interdependent, disappearing at the edges only to appear again from the center, new again, so pure, so young: reborn, different always, yet still the same. Previous ‘Big in Japan’ columns: Column 3: Celebrate Christmas the Japanese Way, With Sex and Cake Column 2: What We Talk About When We Talk About Tentacle Porn Column 1: Fuck You / Do Me