Q&A with ‘Egoist’ director Daishi Matsunaga

“Egoist,” directed by Daishi Matsunaga, opens April 19 at the IFC Center.
“Egoist,” directed by Daishi Matsunaga, opens April 19 at the IFC Center.
Strand Releasing

“Egoist” is a remarkable romantic drama about Kosuke (Ryohei Suzuki), a fashion director, who falls for Ryuta (Hio Miyazawa), his personal trainer. Their relationship, however, hits a snag when Ryuta wants to break things off. The wealthy Kosuke responds by paying a monthly fee to help Ryuta, who is caring for his single mother, Taeko (Sawako Agawa). Yet this arrangement, while seemingly selfish, unexpectedly develops into something selfless. 

Directed and cowritten by Daishi Matsunaga, the film is based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Makoto Takayama. Masunaga coaxes a phenomenal performance out of Suzuki, an action star cast against type. The actor captures Kosuke’s every emotion through his reactions and body language, which reveal the depth of his feelings as he becomes more attached to Ryuta and Taeko. 

Kosuke is a man whose affections are rooted in the loneliness he experienced following the death of his mother when he was a teenager. “Egoist,” therefore, is a film about sacrifice, and Kosuke’s acts of altruism are done out of love. It is ultimately very moving. 

Promoting the film during its July 2023 screening at the New York Asian Film Festival, Matsunaga spoke with Gay City News about his new film with the assistance of interpreter Monika Uchiyama.

Were you familiar with the novel? Was this a risky project because of the gay content? What prompted you to tell this story?

Originally, the producer of the film knew of the book, and she brought it to me and pitched the project. As far as challenges with the film, it wasn’t that there was a risk for the gay themes, it was that there were many monologues, and it was trying to not use too many monologues to tell the story. Another challenge was that the book was 10 years old when I received it, so it was about how to modernize it, and make it more contemporary. 

The film is a character study of Kosuke. What can you say about casting and working with Mr. Suzuki? He is cast against type, yes? I understand he is an action star. Why was he appropriate for the role? 

Ryohei Suzuki, who plays Kosuke, was a friend of mine for more 20 years, and we knew each other even before he became an actor. And Kosuke is a complicated character, so when I thought of who could possibly play him, I thought Ryohei had the qualities in him that could take on the role. Of course, general audiences think of Ryohei as an action actor. He is usually playing physically strong characters. If you didn’t know him personally, you wouldn’t think of him for this role, but in his private life, actually, he has that softness and naïveté which was required for this character. It might be a different type of casting, but it actually truly matches his personality. Ryohei himself says that it is not common for him to get offers to play characters like Kosuke.

You worked with an LGBTQ-inclusive director to work with Mr. Suzuki on his character. Can you talk about that process?

In Japan, these types of roles (LGBTQ-inclusive directors) and or even intimacy coordinators, are not very common yet. But we had the LGBTQ-inclusive director help us finalize the script and helped with casting and auditioning the non-actors who played Kosuke’s friends in the film. They also introduced us to an intimacy choreographer for the film. We collaborated quite a bit. They were present during the production of the film, so we were constantly in conversation.

Can you talk about your approach to the material and sexuality?

In Japan, the phrase LGBTQ+ is becoming more familiar, but I think it is still uncommon to have gay friends. I didn’t want for people to see the film and feel this story is very separate from them or is outside of their world. I wanted to shoot in closeup and in documentary style so the audience could feel this story is very close to them and think it could happen in their life as well.

The film is a story of selflessness, not selfishness. Kosuke’s altruism is his expression of love. Can you talk about that theme?

It’s exactly as you said. In its final form, it’s about altruism and caring for others. As far as Kosuke’s expression of love, it stems from these acts he couldn’t do for his mother. He is carrying on and doing for others. As for the title, “Egoist,” no matter the source of your act of kindness, once you are loving others it is a valid and fine way to express yourself.

Social life in Japan is very intertwined. It is a culture where we are often taking care of others as a group. So, within that society there is a risk of losing oneself. With this character, he is acting upon a self-generated desire and through loving oneself and learning to spread that love to other people. Regardless of the final form, that expression is helping others. It was important to express a form of it that was generated from oneself. 

I appreciate that Kosuke works on his body, and that clothes are his armor, but he shuts out the world to an extent. What are your thoughts about this idea of reinvention? He goes from being a very closed person to someone who is more open.

That analysis is perfect. Clothing actually plays a central role in the film. There is the armor Kosuke wears, and he gifts it to Ryuta. It is the first time he is taking something meant to protect himself to protect another person. When that piece of clothing makes its way back to Kosuke, the same piece of clothing has a different meaning. Another comment on the clothing: In the beginning, Kosuke is wearing very familiar brands, but after he meets Ryuta and his mother, Taeko, his clothing becomes much simpler. That is because the armor becomes unnecessary; he has a new person to protect. That’s an evolution that can be seen through the clothing. 

What about the theme of pride in the film? Ryuta and Taeko both are poor, but proud. Kosuke came from a modest background. They slowly let Kosuke assume a form of control over their lives, but it is beneficial. It could be seen as exploitative, but we know from the emotions Kosuke feels that that is not the case. What are your thoughts on this?

It’s quite a Japanese concept. I don’t know that I would describe it as a sense of pride, but more like modesty, or a type of resisting gifts. Japanese people tend to not want to take things from others. That is more of what’s going on than a sense of pridefulness and wanting to not take money or gifts. Regarding the class difference, Ryuta and Taeko are poor in contrast with Kosuke, but Kosuke is poor in other ways. I wanted to depict that relationship where they each fill a different void in the other — care in the form of money for Kosuke. For Taeko and Ryuta, there is a different kind of care and something Kosuke needs, so there is kind of that relationship. 

Taeko’s speech about love, when he says, “Having someone you truly care about is what matters” ripped through me. It was a beautiful sentiment. What are the attitudes towards homosexuality in Japan? Might her speech change minds, as it is a more accepting viewpoint?

The people who play Kosuke’s friends in the film are non-actors and they are gay. I learned that many of the cast members were not able to come out to their parents but were easily coming out to their friends. A few cast members actually showed the film to their parents and used that as a way to come out to them. When I learned about that I really thought perhaps “Egoist” does have this ability to be a force for change. It really made me feel it was very meaningful for us to be making this film.

“Egoist” | Directed by Daishi Matsunaga | Opening April 19 at the IFC Center | Distributed by Strand Releasing.