Shakespeare – a guy who knew a thing or two about the sting of heartache – once wrote, “The course of true love never did run smooth,” a sage observation about the painful vagaries of romance that certainly intensify when you’re also struggling with your own sexual identity. As another wise (and high-heeled) observer of human behavior rhetorically asks contestants in a popular reality show these days, “If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell are you gonna love somebody else?” With its sincerity focused on two confused young men trying to get on the same page both romantically and sexually, the Japanese anime feature The Stranger by the Shore plays a little like an afterschool special for older teenagers, one that particularly speaks to those young adults trying to embrace where they reside on the LGBTQIA spectrum. Though sometimes less than sophisticated in the execution of its narrative, the movie’s messaging is certainly worthy of the RuPaul equivalent of two snaps up.
Based on the first book in the L’étranger manga series written and illustrated by Kanna Kii, this short-length animated movie (it runs just under an hour) is ripe with drama, some of which is a bit soapy here. It begins with the nightly appearance of a melancholy young man silently sitting on an oceanfront bench in Okinawa. This mysterious figure intrigues the moody twentysomething novelist Shun (Grelle in the English dub), who lives with his aunt at a nearby inn on the island. Eventually, Shun meets the titular stranger, a grieving high school student named Mio (Briner), recently orphaned following his mother’s death. Shun’s initial compassion for Mio quickly develops into a friendship followed by something deeper, an attraction that doesn’t shock him because he self-identifies as gay. At one point, he questions aloud why nonhetero relationships frighten some people: “How did it get to be considered so strange?”
But when Shun finally confesses his feelings to Mio, the teenager unexpectedly lashes out in fear, calling Shun “creepy” for spying on his private nocturnal visits to the beach. This negative reaction triggers unhappy memories in Shun, and he retreats into himself as Mio announces he’s leaving to live in a mainland orphanage. Three years later, a matured 20-year-old Mio returns, ready for love, but — as fickle fate would have it — Shun is now shamefully plagued by doubt as he wonders whether he could ever make any man happy. Halfway through the movie, the two finally kiss after Mio (now the pursuer, no longer the pursued) stubbornly demonstrates he’s refusing to budge. For a significant portion of the remainder, Shun’s internalized homophobia continues to frustrate any sexual consummation of the relationship, while revelations about his past attempt to provide an explanation for his self-loathing behavior. This may be the first anime movie with blue balls.
While the flip-flopping emotions in the storyline might be more effectively fleshed out in a longer movie, Stranger by the Shore is gorgeous to look at. The yellow hibiscus, those pink bougainvillea, that blue, blue sky! (Not to mention those two lyrically intertwined felines evoking the film’s central relationship.) And erotic, too, with all that boy-band hair fluttering in the sea breeze. Western audiences unfamiliar with anime stylization may find the characters’ often exaggerated, monosyllabic dialogue weirdly inappropriate at times, but they can’t deny the movie’s heart is in the right place. When Shun and Mio finally (let’s not mince words) fuck, the details of their physical passion (whoa!) followed by their union of souls (wow!) is something you’ve likely never seen in this or any other kind of animated movie, porn incarnations excepted. For many of us: Wow squared!
Available to stream on Funimation in subtitled Japanese and English-language dub.
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