The metaphor of an ugly duckling blossoming into a beautiful swan fuels the transgender character study Midnight Swan. This winner of three 2021 Japanese Academy Awards including Best Film and Best Actor debuts at the Toronto Japanese Film Festival. This understated drama explores the prejudice that transgender people face in Japan. The film stars Tsuyoshi Kusanagi as Nagisa, a transgender woman from Hiroshima who moved to Tokyo for a better life. She dances in a local cabaret where patrons get obscenely drunk and hurl homophobic and transphobic slurs night after night. Everyone but her network of friends misgenders her, often flagrantly and intentionally, minimizing her existence at every turn. She’s an outsider everywhere she goes.
However, Nagisa gets a chance to take another duckling under her wing. Nagisa’s sister calls unexpectedly and asks her to care for her daughter while she receives treatment for alcoholism. The girl, Ichika (Misaki Hattori), arrives in Tokyo in a nearly catatonic state. She barely speaks a word and moves through life in a daze. Growing up in a turbulent household with no father present and a mom who’s barely there, Ichika lapses into self-harm by biting her arms to administer pain. Moving to a new school doesn’t help, either, as the kids snicker at her guardian’s appearance and tease her for having a transgender parent. This sense of alienation ultimately brings Nagisa and Ichika together. Nagisa learns to provide for herself by caring for Ichika, while the child affords her elder the respect and attention that others neglect.
Ichika, meanwhile, shares Nagisa’s interest in dance. She discovers a ballet school and starts taking lessons on the sly. The teacher (Asami Mizukawa) recognizes Ichika’s talent and her need for an outlet. Ballet provides strength, connects her with girls from her school, and affords stability.
Midnight Swan observes Nagisa’s growing devotion to Ichika and to herself as she cleans up her life to become the mother the girl never had. This includes an intensive dance with her own transition. She secures stable work to pay for Ichika’s classes by taking a job in a warehouse, which requires her to present as male to get the job. Meanwhile, seeing Ichika flourish inspires Nagisa to follow through with the intensive hormone treatments and gender correction surgery.
The latter, however, happens so quickly and randomly that a central part of Nagisa’s journey becomes a stumbling block in the film. It just…happens. Without really rooting the procedural aspect of transitioning within a pretense for realism, larger cracks emerge. Midnight Swan admittedly lags behind contemporary portraits of transgender experiences tackled in Western cinema. On one hand, this awkwardness simply reflects Japan’s own sluggishness towards progressive views of LGBTQ rights. (Same-sex marriage is still not legal in Japan.) On the other, the film leans too much on Nagisa’s traumatizing experiences. Moreover, the premise that Nagisa finds stability through motherhood unfortunately gives a transgender story through a heteronormative frame.
Ichika the Swan
There’s also a lot going on in Midnight Swan for such an intimately framed movie. Ichika has a lesbian fling that doesn’t go anywhere, while the feminization of Nagisa is, what Drag Race fans might call, very “man in a dress.” Tsuyoshi Kusanagi gives a committed and heartfelt turn as Nagisa, but casting a heterosexual cis-gender actor as a transgender character undermines the film’s message about welcoming trans voices and experiences. There are also so many tangents in the plot—child sex workers, etc.—that come and go so randomly that the film loses focus of the metamorphosis at its heart.
Midnight Swan does redeem itself with the genuinely touching chemistry between the two leads. Misaki Hattori gives a performance beyond her years as Ichika. It’s a difficult task to ask a young actor to carry so much of a film with a largely internal performance. She gamely rises to the challenge. Even as Ichika shrouds herself in protective silence, one can see that, like Nagisa, she’s yearning to break free. As she opens up through dance, the physicality of the performance is wonderfully expressive. The film’s exploration of Ichika’s mental health and well-being, moreover, is equally admirable. Midnight Swan takes its time to blossom, and while it doesn’t quite hit full bloom, the petals that open do so admirably.