In this gay-themed Japanese film from the early Nineties, Tatsuru (Yoshihiko Hakamada), a college student, and Shin (Masashi Endô), who's in high school, work out of the same Tokyo bar called Pinocchio as gay rent boys. Yoriko (Reiko Kataoka) and Atsumi (Sumiyo Yamada) are their respective girl friends--but not girlfriends, though they'd both like to be. Tatsuru and Shin are teen dreamboats in their way: both have boyish, androgynous good looks and perfect hair they're always fussing with. At first the focus is on the tall Tatsuru, who's shown with a john in the opening sequence, which establishes that he is sexually ambivalent and emotionally shut down. He's good at sex supposedly, if you like making love with an alabaster robot. He's cut off from his family despite his father's attempts to maintain contact and lives in a tiny apartment by himself till Shin, who knows he's gay and comes out to his parents and is kicked out of the house, moves in with Tatsuru. This is only supposed to be temporary, but it brings things to a head because little Shin's in love with Tatsuru, as he's told Atsumi. She chides Shin later for chickening out of this opportunity to declare his love to Tatsuru. This is the old theme of the gay kid who falls in love with a straight guy, except the object of his affections isn't straight but just unwilling to admit he's gay, and to make things worse is a colleague in the skin trade..
Ironically, Shin is a washout as a male prostitute. Or perhaps it makes sense that somebody who knows he's gay and is in love with someone he sees all the time will have trouble turning the sex on and off mechanically the way Tatsuru can.
'Slight Fever' reeks of urban ennui, though cultural differences make it a little hard for a westerner to assess the mood of this elegantly understated film--which, nonetheless, is as Hashiguchi starts out a commentary by saying, "sensational," never more so than in the scene toward the end where he himself plays a client in a hotel room who winds up with both Tatsuru and Shin in his bed, a situation that goes very badly for all concerned. This is one of a series of tense surprises. In a previous one Tatsuru goes to Yoriko's house to help move a TV and is forced to stay to dinner only to discover Yoriko's father is one of his clients. Maybe this is meant to be funny, but both males appear to be imploding throughout a meal in which the two females chatter on and on. It seems like the only communicating in the film is with or between females, but it's mostly just empty chatter. The conversations that matter between or among the males never take place.
The technically so-so DVD includes a bonus section made ten years after 'Slight Fever's' release where director Ryosuke Hashiguchi describes the experience of this, his first film, and two of the main actors who've had successful careers since tell how it was for them this first time. None of the four principals had had previous acting experience. The interview films also show stills taken on the set. Hashiguchi looked a lot younger, was boyishly handsome, much like Hakamada, who was fresh from the provinces and a fashion model whose cold, blank expression the director liked; and in fact as Hakamada reports, he and the director were confused with each other on the set more than once, though Hashiguchi never acknowledged the resemblance. Hashiguchi, with typical Japanese reserve, reveals little about himself other than that he is gay and that he labored over the script for 2 1/2 years because he wanted other people to "understand how it is." The gay life--did he live it in this way? Yes and no, probably. A gay man who had a sexually promiscuous youth can easily imagine what it is like to be a rent boy. Or maybe he was one. What is clear is that the contrasts between Tatsuro and Shin dramatize the difference between a boy who knows he's gay and one who's struggling with the fact.
Hashiguchi reveals that the film was a surprise hit in Japan and young men and women are seen in stills lining up for blocks to see it, while provincial gay boys wrote the director to tell him his film saved them from suicide. Hashiguchi isn't wrong when he says the film is badly made. The project was underfunded and rushed and the technical package is unimpressive. It's shot in 16mm. Visuals are okay but not great, and as the director points out things fell apart style-wise when he chose to take on the role of the john in the hotel room at the end and they switched to a hand-held camera that gets way too jiggly at one point. But if this is the seminal gay coming of age film for a generation of gay Japanese boys, those faults don't matter. There are also signs that Hashiguchi has a flair for plot and editing, despite the extreme haste in which the latter had to be done, and his later efforts (which I haven't seen) are rumored to be successful. Judging from the lack of external reviews the film seems to have had zero theatrical life in the West, so despite its local success and a sort of interesting blend of shock and understatement and the fact that the performances do work, it seems like a minor film even from the gay point of view. Some scenes are fascinating; others with a slight shift in plot elements could just be moments from some conventional Japanese TV series. But if this was a ground-breaker and now could be a conventional TV series, that's not such a bad thing either.