by Will Ross
I don't know about you, but for me many of the happiest moments of consuming art are coincidences: moments when a book finds synchronicity with my personal life; when an audience taps into a special, collective energy of appreciation that cannot be replicated before or after; when a double feature unwittingly presents itself. The latest such coincidence for me was seeing Kase-san and the Morning Glories and Liz and the Blue Bird within a few days of each other. Both films are yuri — anime centered on female characters in homosexual relationships — and seemed to me kindred in their approaches to high school girls discovering their queerness, despite the chasmic differences of style and tone between them.
I. Morning Glories
Kase-san and the Morning Glories, a brief feature (under one hour) that adapts select episodes from a long-running manga series, is immediately striking for what it omits. As it begins, the leads Kase and Yamada have already entered into a relationship. The removal of any courtship process quickly precludes the trope within queer coming-of-age narratives of the characters discovering their sexuality — instead, the tension of the early relationship centers on the girls’ self-esteem and perceptions of each other. Like many teenagers in love, they're deeply aware of the other's positive qualities, and view the absence of those qualities within themselves as personal failings whose discovery by their partner is bound to disappoint. For her part, Kase is a fastidious, withdrawn gardening type with proclivities towards overtly girly dress and home decoration, while Yamada is a popular track star whose short hair, height, athleticism, and comparative brashness lend a somewhat more masculine temperament. Kase's embarrassment is poorly hidden, shown both through wild caricature and the oh-so-anime sprouting of weeds from her head in moments of particular humiliation — and this more open emotional state makes her the natural choice as narrator and effective protagonist. Yamada, on the other hand, is far more reserved with her inner life, given to expressing it quietly in moments of pained confession, or with sudden, assertive outbursts. Unlike Kase, we may frequently wonder how Yamada feels about a given subject, or if she has any feelings on the matter at all.
All of this may give the impression that Kase-san and the Morning Glories approaches romance between girls by coding them with standard straight, cisgender traits, crafting a romantic narrative with mass appeal by making it closely proximate to the cliches of mainstream love stories. This reading seems to gain legitimacy when considered with the lack of any overt references within the film towards their coupling as being socially unusual, let alone the subject of prejudice within Japan. In other words, these qualities, taken on their own, send up classic red flags of representation: make the depiction of marginalized people more palatable by omitting social and systemic biases from the equation. Yet this is where the film's tactics of representation start, not where they end, and Morning Glories evokes a muted sense of social repression with isolated moments in the drama that allow underlying anxieties to peek through for split seconds. This elliptical approach is announced in almost literal terms in the film’s first words, a single line of prologue narration by Kase, “We’re both girls, but…”. Navigating a romance as girls is thus evoked as something deeply felt, but never spoken. In other words, the social discouragement of queer relationships manifests not through chiding, or through measurable social exclusion, but through the seeming impossibility of its utterance, let alone confrontation.
While this often serves to complicate moments of standard teenage romance (like, for instance, the nervousness of a first kiss, or the fear of revealing a relationship to peers) with an ambiguous social element, at times it comes close to announcing itself more overtly. In one scene Kase invites Yamada into her house for the first time while her parents happen to be absent. The sexual implications of being alone in a bedroom in an empty house are lost on Kase (who has a much more abstract sense of fear over their blossoming intimacy), but not on Yamada, and after some comic misunderstanding, Yamada announces her intent and willingness by pushing Kase back onto the bed, looking over her and saying “I want to go out with you properly. I mean it.” The tonal whiplash of the moment focuses our attention and helps to announce that the subtext of social repression is nearly boiling over, and in spite of our fear over the sexually threatening positions of the characters, Yamada’s face does not show frustration, anger, or entitlement, but embarrassment and sadness. Moments later, Kase’s parents come home, interrupting their near-coitus, and Yamada laughs it off and suggests “Let’s do it some other time.” While “going out properly” refers most obviously to the social pressure on teenage couples to express the seriousness of their bond through sex, in Yamada’s case that’s merely a symptom of a deeper fear: that their relationship won’t advance beyond an intimate platonic friendship, and that they either won’t acknowledge their romantic feelings — including lust — or they won’t permit themselves to feel them at all. Like everything else in Morning Glories, the sequence concludes happily, with the two cuddling on the bed, acknowledging sexual desire as a component of their attraction but not necessitating the act of sexual contact in order to legitimate it.
The scene, like the rest of the movie, is overwhelmingly cute and happy-go-lucky, short on protracted crises and even shorter on conflict. That's exactly what allows its deeper issues — alluded to but never elaborated or explicated — to be cast in tonal relief. Only in the most private space possible, the bedroom, do either of the girls approach an open acknowledgement of their social erasure and marginalization. When in view and earshot of others, they behave as friends, only allowing themselves gestures of intimacy and open discussion of their relationship when there's nobody else around, until in the very last scene their love is publicly expressed, an act shown as necessary for them to fully realize a lasting and meaningful relationship. The subtlety of their oppression ensures that its seeming absence looms over the rest of the work.
II. Blue Birds
I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a movie with as many shots of feet in it as Liz and the Blue Bird, in which anxiety is acknowledged and near-ubiquitous, and it’s the expression of desire that’s never allowed to surface. Where Morning Glories magnifies fears surrounding marginalization by eliding them in all but a few key moments, Blue Bird magnifies them by eliding almost everything else. Here, it’s the romantic longing that goes unspoken, although its presence is made painfully clear in every scene via the camera and editing’s lyrical gaze and rhythm. Like Morning Glories the subjects are two high school girls, Mizore and Nozomi. Unlike Morning Glories, they are in a decidedly platonic friendship that finds itself on rocky ground as graduation approaches. Mizore is a morose introvert, unwilling to socialize with almost anyone besides Nozomi, a springy social nucleus who’s quick to smile but whose deeper thoughts register as either obscure or mercurial. Years earlier, Nozomi apparently made a concerted effort to involve Mizore in their school’s band club, and has found herself almost attached at the hip ever since. Nozomi, seems content with this, but holds Mizore at an emotional arm’s length, implicitly aware that the latter admires her as more than a friend. Nozomi neither judges Mizore’s sullen reluctance to share her thoughts and feelings nor seeks them out. There is an uneasy, unsustainable equilibrium.
Yet the film itself is happy to share Mizore’s thoughts with us, not so much adopting her perspective as empathetically (and emphatically) perceiving it. The first time we see the two spending time together, a long sequence of closeups makes clear Mizore’s romantic adoration of her friend by establishing a hypnotic cadence to the movements of Nozomi’s body: the waving of her skirt, the swishing of her ponytail, the swing of her arms. These POV shots are mixed with ones that emphasize their location (the clinically desaturated halls of their high school) and their distance from each other, and they collectively eschew traditional approaches to composition and continuity in order to suggest the emotionally disjunctive experience of unrequited love. To both put a button on this sequence as the film’s formal manifesto and make the intent of these techniques perfectly clear, it ends with a cut to a hand-drawn title card of one word: “disjoint”.
It’s a manifesto that the rest of Blue Bird makes good on, as every scene’s shape takes as much interest in quotidian gestures and poses as the interplay and subtext of character dialogue. The effect is unusual enough to be “arthouse”, but it also reminds me of the tactics that thrillers often use to maximize effect and excitement. To sit close to her love, to sense her hair falling towards their shoulder, is a euphoric experience for Mizore, and the film unearths queer affection through these and other details that go unacknowledged by characters, but land as much more than quotidian trivialities.
Art itself is taken as an important tool for understanding the girls’ connection, both for the audience and the girls themselves. A storybook film-within-the-film establishes a story of two characters whose metaphorical application to the main story fluctuates in both the audience and the characters’ minds. The process of preparing shared musical solo becomes a means to exposit the girls’ unwillingness to fully reveal themselves to each other, until in an extraordinary musical sequence, they do. (That scene is the first of the film’s devastating double climax, preceding a scene in a lab classroom whose dialogue finds the girls stumbling towards and around their fears and desires in a masterfully written scene of awkward intimation and mutual terror.) Taken collectively these are unmistakable signals that must be actively ignored to deny their romantic implications.
While it operates beautifully as a standalone work, Liz and the Blue Bird’s status as a spin-off further ennobles and clarifies its intent. The film is based on the Sound! Euphonium frachise, which spans novels, manga, anime series and features, and features Nozomi and Mizore in minor roles. Outside Blue Bird, there is no implication of sexual or romantic feelings between them. In crafting a spin-off to the anime, the director, Naoko Yamada, and her regular screenwriter, Reiko Yoshida, effectively comment of the lack of representation for marginalized characters in popular franchises by depicting two who are never allowed to honestly represent themselves. Would Liz and the Blue Bird itself have been allowed to declare, in clear terms, that Mizore’s desperation to remain close to Nozomi is largely rooted in homosexual love, if Yamada and Yoshida had wanted that? Maybe. But the Sound! Euphonium anime has a reputation for queer-baiting with its character relationships, and it seems likely that a concrete depiction of same-sex romance wasn’t on the table. If that’s so, then it’s not just the prejudices of her world, but the corporate mandates of media property to which Mizore belongs that ensures she remains repressed.
Blue Bird responds to its source material’s queer-baiting by depicting characters who are unmistakably, unarguably, unambiguously queer, and yet who are not queer, because they are not allowed to be. It subtly distinguishes its political position on representation from that of the anime series by means of aesthetic deviations. For instance, the characters’ necks are elongated in comparison to the Sound! Euphonium anime to connote them as birds; for their cage, the setting before the first and last scenes is claustrophobically confined to their dingy high school. But the film’s prior speculation, about which girl is the blue bird and which is the owner who cages it and later sets it free, may be the wrong framing, a notion the film slyly puts forth itself: late in the film, a lengthy shot shows two birds soaring through the distant sky, drifting slowly and uncertainly towards and away from each other. Neither of them was or could have been caging the other. There are larger, unseen forces responsible for that.
By the end, it becomes clear that it’s actually Nozomi who most closely guards her feelings, and while the film gathers enough clues that we can intuit the wordless ending to be a happy, even romantically satisfying one, they remain just that: clues, signals, codes. They’re traces of a roiling, frightened discovery of the self that operate just under the radar of social notice. They are at once hopelessly inadequate to communicate desire between oppressed identities, and at the same time the last, best hope of doing so. Of course we’re not allowed to hear whatever it is Nozomi says that shocks Mizore in the final shot. To reveal it would be to risk everything.
The lens of queerness is not and should not be the only way to view either Kase-San and the Morning Glories or Liz and the Blue Bird. They reach for a broader scope of themes and character psychology than such a limited methodology could cover, and formulating diverse perspectives on their forms and structures enriches them as works of art. Yet neither must that lens ever be discounted, forgotten, or elided in considering the work, as the omnipresence of the issues it raises is the most critical subtext of both films.
Nobody tells Kase or Mizore or Yamada or Nozomi “no.” Nobody disapproves of their friendship or any desire between them, or their heartfelt need not just for a passing fling, but for a substantive, long-term relationship. Neither film has anything like a villain or antagonist, but this is not the same as saying that nobody is responsible for the challenges these girls face in defining and exchanging their feelings for each other. Rather, the tools of oppression work against them so well that they need not announce themselves. While the texts function on a strictly literal level without acknowledging this subtext, their characters’ choices and behaviours cannot be fully explained without accounting for it. Both films bring queer stories to the screen partially by working within the strictures of mainstream presentations — Morning Glories presents a cutesy, seemingly uncomplicated and conflict-free love story, and Blue Bird operates of a spin-off of a multimedia franchise — that they proceed to deconstruct from within, without breaking the rules of the game. The full scope and implications of their politics can only be proven and understood in the same way as black holes: not by direct observation, but by the way all observable material bends towards them.
But the inescapable gravity well of that metaphor belies both films’ endings, which depict the possibility of happy, healthy, lasting and loving romances between women. Of all the tropes — both in Japanese animation and global representations of queer representation — that Blue Bird and Morning Glories rejects, it’s their conscious foregoing of any tragic conclusion to gay romance that is the most satisfying, the most aspirational, and perhaps, in a global culture where only films about LGBT characters that wind up dead or miserable get considered for awards, the most radical. What ultimately inspires and endures from each is their concluding visions of two people who love each other and, somehow, achieve safety, openness, and unity.