Miwa: A Japanese Icon is an exploration of a transgender actor and singer who took Japan by storm before LGBT rights were an issue. The French-made documentary from director Pascal-Alex Vincent candidly – with an appropriate dash of camp – presents Akihiro Miwa (Miwa to his fans) as a sort of elder statesman of Japanese queerdom. In contrast to his frequent, often catty Japanese daytime TV persona, Miwa appears charming, subdued, and composed, recalling her like and successes from his well-appointed home. Japan held little stigma against homosexuality, according to Miwa and the film’s historians; prevailing attitudes were introduced after the war when European interests began to hold sway in a Japan striving for modernization. Recognized nationally as the countryâs only Îoutâ homosexual in post-war Japan for some time, Miwa became a focal point for the country’s gay community in exile.
The engaging documentary pays ample attention to fetching glossies of the actor and musician as a young man and duly covers the circumstances of his upper middle class childhood. The film’s focus lies with the evolution of the Japanese cinematic landscape throughout which Miwa’s career is woven, beginning with his role in the rise of exploitation master Kinji Fukasaku, who directed an iconic turn in “Black Lizard” at Miwa’s request. Edogawa Rampo’s novel “Black Lizard” was adapted for the screen by Japanese literary royalty and closeted homo Yukio Mishima, whose unfaltering÷and unrequited÷admiration jumpstarted Miwa’s career. Miwa also made appearances in the radical protest films of Shūji Terayama during the 1970s, a spate of voice acting done for anime legend Hayao Miyazaki, and÷in a somewhat less concrete moment÷an affiliation with Takeshi Kitano from both his saloon days and the present.
Miwa’s ability to remain active in Japan’s filmic culture for all these decades coupled with her unwavering acceptance by modern Japanese as an icon of glamour and femininity can only lead one to wonder what the American landscape would look like if intolerance to homosexuality was a footnote in our culture, instead of a hallmark. There have been whispered accusations about Mae West and other stars from Hollywoodâs Golden Age and a good number of pop tarts, who failed to fit into pre-conceived notions of female sexuality, but just imagine if those rumors were true. “Miwa: A Japanese Icon” is a fascinating exploration of a daring darling who relished every moment of her 50 years in the spotlight and despite many hardships emerged smelling like a cherry blossom.