Review: ‘Okoge’

Okoge (おこげ)
akuakehiro Nakajima (director, writer)

September 13, 1993
120 minutes
DVD, Digital

Okoge, is a 1993 film by Takehiro Nakajima which depicts the hardships of gay people in Japan and the sentiments of Japanese society towards homosexuality in the early post economic bubble years.

Okoge is the Japanese word for “the crispy rice that sticks to the bottom of the pot”. In Puerto Rican Spanish, we call it pegao, and it seems that many other rice eating cultures have a specific name for this culinary treasure. So how did it come to describe “women who hang out with gay men” in Japan?

The origin is connected to a Japanese euphemism for gay men, okama (オカマ).  Any student of Japanese knows that the language consists of a huge number of homonyms, and okama happens to sounds just like the word for “pot”. The okoge sticks to the okama. And thus the slang term okoge came to be.

The obvious English equivalent is fag hag, but I personally feel like okoge isn’t as derogatory. I mean, rice sticking to the pot is a sort of natural occurrence, is it not? In any case, I’ll leave it to someone else to explore the question of whether or not okoge is/was considered offensive or not.

(Caution: Minor spoilers follow)

The films stars Shimizu Misa as the titular okoge, Sayoko. After witnessing Goh (Murata Takahiro), and his partner (Tochi) on a date, Sayoko runs into them again at a Shinjuku Bar. She quickly strikes a friendship with them due to her bright personality and pure intentions. She doesn’t find anything wrong with Goh and Tochi’s affection for each other, even calling it “beautiful”.

When it becomes difficult for the two to find a private place to spend the night together (Goh faces complications with having a man over his apartment and Tochi is married with children), Sayoko offers them the extra room in her apartment, a space where they can be safe and uninhibited together.

The three become close friends and create a bubble of safety and co-dependency.  But everything is challenged when the opinions and actions of various outside figures threaten to destroy their sense of sanctuary.

The movie does an excellent job depicting the struggles, discrimination, and pressures faced by gay people in Japan. Topics touched upon include housing discrimination, the difficulty of coming out to/ being accepted by one’s family, and the societal pressure that forces gay men to get married to women while keeping their gay life a secret. Another significant issue is the need for Goh and Tochi to keep a low profile when they are on dates, just in case they were to run into someone they know.

Those of you living in Japan or in a same-sex relationship in Japan might be familiar with these problems, because for the most part, all of these issues are just as significant today as they were 24 years ago.

The film handles its heavy source material by balancing its dark scenes with those containing humor and camp. This leads to some moments which leave you distressed while also making you laugh. For example the scene where Goh’s depressed mother’s is asking Sayoko where she went wrong while Goh and his gay friends debate nature or nurture as the root of being gay in the adjacent room.

“I cut my finger with a rusty knife when I was pregnant with him, and I can’t stop thinking that is was what caused it,” Goh’s mother confides to Sayoko. Meanwhile in the other room, Goh’s friend sassily argues “I have four brothers and we were all raised the same. Yet I’m the only one who turned out gay. It would be cruel to blame it on your mother!” Okoge manages to teach viewers about misinformation without becoming preachy.

There are also a handful of over the top scenes that are so ridiculous they almost take you out of the film. However, I think that these moments were included to poke fun at homophobic people, or perhaps to help them to realize how their illogical and unyielding attitude causes others distress.

It would be difficult to write a review of Okoge without praising Shimizu Misa’s performance as Sayoko. At first, I was afraid that her bubbly personality would become grating after 15 minutes, but I fell in love with the character and could understand why the film is said to have been very popular among women when it was originally released. Sayoko’s character falls into the ‘pure and idealistic but a little bit naive’ archetype, but I think that just enough of her backstory is shown to help the viewer to understand her motivations and and why she feels so safe with Goh and Tochi.

Even though Okoge takes some dark turns, there’s an exchange towards the end of the movie that I found to be especially beautiful. It gives the viewers a sense of the Japanese spirit of endurance and the value of respecting those who have come before you.  The film seems to assert that “We gay people will endure no matter what you throw at us.”

Okoge is available on DVD and for streaming on Netflix Japan (with Japanese subtitles). The film contains scenes of domestic violence and sexual assault, so viewer beware.

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2 Comments

  1. Carlito

    It sounds really interesting. I must check it out soon. Keep up the great work! I like the new website too 🙂

    • I think that this film is a must-watch!

      I’m glad that you’re enjoying the site. Happy reading!

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