When I was young, when I was a different kind of child, when I was a scrappier one, I used to fight. Neighbor boys, classmates, siblings. Bareknuckle and wielding tree branches. I bled, and in turn made others bleed, sometimes on accident, sometimes on purpose. It was horseplay, but sometimes, in the heat of it, it was real as sin.
When I was, again, young, I was hurt often. Here though not by people but by circumstance. Put into situations I couldn’t really understand. No one really knows how to teach a child about child death. It comes in many ways. Disappearance. An accident, on vacation, on a vehicle they shouldn’t have been on. The pale glow of suicide threats on computer screen, at once real and unreal. Frantic phone calls, or snapchat, or instant messenger blips. It’s not something anyone should contend with, but it’s something there, something “life and death” in a real way.
In the ambiguity and disorientation of that grief adolescent violence is recontextualized. The realness of it feels elevated and material for the first time. It doesn’t always need to be grief that explicates this process for you, there are any number of moments that can make what you’ve done finally real, but grief is the one I am thinking about here, at least now, because it is an impetus, of a kind, for the film Summer Vacation 1999, by director Shusuke Kaneko.
An is the operative word there, though, because while grief informs the text, so to does sexuality. Summer Vacation 1999 is an adaptation, but the title doesn’t really give that fact away. The manga it is based on, The Heart of Thomas, is a classic of a kind. Written by Moto Hagio in the mid 70s, the story takes cues from earlier European literature; Hesse’s Demian and Peyrefitte’s Les amitiés particulières figure prominently as influences, and it similarly recalls works like Mädchen in Uniform, with genders changed. Set in a German boarding school, it follows several teenaged male students, all coming into homosocial conflict stemming from same-gender desire following the suicide of the titular Thomas Werner, at age 13, and the arrival of Erich Frühling, who shares his face. It’s a text informed deeply by Christianity from an outsider’s vantage, an interesting touch, and one unapologetically gay, if not uncomplicatedly so in its texturing of such. Summer Vacation 1999 importantly retains the core here, the desire, the death, the particularities of these boys and their relationships to one another, but changes context, location, faith, and plays further with gender.
What we have, then, is the genre of shounen-ai, or “boy’s love” literature, dramaturgically reconstituted within flesh and film reel, something as art androgynous in the way most kids really are at their core. The boys, played by child actresses in drag, once German by source text now Japanese by adaptation, harm each other, emotionally and physically, the lulls of adolescence interrupted by first love and, more importantly, loves relationality to death. That grief, that proximity, is suffocating. They’re so transfixed by each other, by their onset perceptions of mortality. It’s exceedingly Freudian, down to a somewhat-downplayed, or even aborted, Oedipal subplot. But it works for me; Freud was always better for theater and literature than he was for psychology.
Much of the success of its communication comes from its feel; Summer Vacation is often languid in photography, lots of quiet or contemplative shots, but as a piece it establishes melodrama in much more urgent terms — melancholic, dreaming, but still always focused on the intimate psychical space of the four boys, their deaths, their rebirths. Reincarnation figures in both purely figuratively and possibly literal ways. The ending is as indefinite as the summer, recursive and self-editing, but so tender in that irresolution.
There’s a lot to love here, but setting aside the larger concerns I want to address the details, the small changes that particularize the whole affair. The set dressing is particularly nice — the soft speculative chunky futurism that permeates especially the earlier moments of the film allow for a plausibility to the play and revelations in the last act. The aesthetic is piecemeal, and that works for it. Sometimes, camellias line scenes among deep green forests and hazy rivers, giving it the eternal summer texture it needs, invoking any number of classic adolescent narratives of similar scene. But on top of that, the faux-Germanic setting of the manga is reflected in dress and complicated by the neo-classical architecture, presenting a Japan transmogrified by the future and by westernization. It’s cleverly referential in this way. That just-shy-atemporality is also a sort of foreshadowing here; it collapses in and around itself, as the boys do. They’re all constituent parts of a whole that is the summer, even in Yu’s, or Kaoru’s, absence.
For me, I watched the film before reading the manga, and it stands on its own, but in many ways the project of the the original mangaka carries into the text of the film. Hagio was noted for wanting to avoid women as outward subject matter for this story, mostly for self imposed challenge, and much of the analysis of The Heart of Thomas notes that this establishes a psychical landscape in which the boys are free from clear, real life patriarchy (and so too homophobia, contemporary conceptions and impositions of binary gender, etc). There are existent readings of her work that even see the masculine homosexuality of the material as a projective displacement of feminine homosexuality, something a little more dyke-y. The androgyny of the art, the center positioning of bishounen and bishoujo. Regardless of readings of subtext, it is undeniable that it presents a type of gender neutral masculinity, perhaps conflating them, perhaps combining them. It’s thorny, but it makes the moments of tenderness and of violence pop. It’s not that gender is divorced then from their experience, but rather, it is made a bit unfamiliar, and the ‘play’ of it all takes on a context of adolescence first, over boys or girls.
This is further emphasized in Summer Vacation 1999, wherein the only people to appear on screen are these four male characters as portrayed by young actresses, playing out this social-sexual drama in that obscured gender-neutral space; these aren’t really either especially effeminate or masculine kids, they’re divorced from family and authority, and there isn’t any real address of homophobia as an outside source, nor is there reference to norms of gender, or of sexuality. They even wholly remove the implication of sexual violence from the manga, which, while in some ways detrimental to one of their arcs, makes sense. This is a lean and focused text, laser-precise, centered entirely in the drama of these particular characters. It elevates what else is there, and that is the longing and loss so heightened in youth.
Outside of the text, there is useful context worth parsing. For starters, Kaneko himself; his oeuvre is not an uncommon one among genre directors in Japan, but worth addressing. Before Summer Vacation 1999 his bread and butter was mostly what’s called pinku eiga, or pink films, a colloquial name for theatrically released pornography, and after this film, when not doing original work he mostly is known for real genre franchise installments, kaiju or sentai films. It’s a weird background, and one that doesn’t betray itself in the cinematography itself. What that background has done though is colored the perception of it abroad to some degree. There’s a Momus song titled “Summer Holiday 1999” which unsubtly references the work, but the way he has described it in the liner notes for his compilation album himself is somewhat curious:
“Shusuke Kaneko’s strange, atmospheric Summer Vacation, 1999: part porn, part sci fi, the film was made in 1988, set amongst Junior High School boys played by girls. This and a Mishima play I saw at the Edinburgh Festival helped me arrive at my next style: Science Fiction melodrama. The world was so old, yet so new, ending yet beginning. Girls were boys. Machines let you feel emotion. It was all fresh, tragic, magical.”
Without hyperbole, there is nothing here that could be read as pornographic. Nor is there in Hagio’s original. But this suggests a framing of the film that is frustrating to me, and vitally misunderstands not just the semiotics of Kaneko’s film, but also just the way that young atypical bodies are framed writ large. It reads as perceiving crossdressing, or any expression of non-normative gender, as inherently pornographic, as fetish, which is rhetoric heard from modern day legislators and scaremongers (and it contextualizes this film’s later reclamation as trans art; it played at the Dutch Transgender Film Festival, after all).
The nature of this work isn’t quite ascetic though. As mentioned before, one of Hagio’s influences for the manga was that of Roger Peyrefitte’s Les amitiés particulières, more specifically its film adaptation by director Jean Delannoy. A story about a young students relationship with his older same-gender teacher, Peyrefitte was a notable advocate for both homosexuality and paedestry, and in fact, at age 57, would meet the adolescent Alain-Philippe Malagnac d’Argens de Villèle, aged only 12-years-old, on set of the film, and would pursue a “relationship” him long term as a result. It isn’t really germane whether Hagio was familiar with this context to the film, nor is it really germane to The Heart of Thomas itself on a “moral basis,” as the story is centered around adolescent peers, but it does perhaps inform a few beats of the story broadly. Julusmole Bauernfeind, known as Juli and arguably a more central symbol than either Thomas or Erich for the psychology of the characters here, is shown to be a survivor of abuse and rape at the hands of an older male student, and there is a culture of paedastry at the school that Thomas is implied to have been inoculated to, and that Erich, as replacement to Thomas in the eyes of the adults and elder students among him, rejects. It takes these moments, particularly Juli’s backstory, with delicacy and seriousness, an earnestness centered in its young, precocious perspectives even.
It becomes, then, something of a text in response, conscious and opinionated even as it looks to its influences, and that reactive sensibility is shared even by the film, in spite of its even further degendered nature. There is no implication of sexual abuse in the film, but that pallor lingers over the psychology of the characters. What was Juli’s sexual trauma becomes the repression of Kazuhiko (his stand-in), something that communicates the same bared turmoil but again hazily devoid of it’s original context, in place of something more insular, internal. This is Summer Vacation’s mode wholesale, not devoid of context, but reworking the context into something more chambered and relational. The choice of female actresses for the lead boys contributes to this in terms of the presentation of their physicality on screen, as does the removal of all characters outside of five central characters: Yu and Kaoru, respectively Thomas and Erich; the aforementioned Kazuhiko, who replaces Juli; Naoto, who replaces Oskar, the quiet, longing friend of the original, and who takes on more bite here; and Norio, a young boy who roughly translates the role of Ante Löwer as younger, secondary interloper and observer, but also a functional one-boy Greek chorus, meant as an outside source looking in, to some degree. There are only these four boys, and the summertime. There are not even the changing seasons marking growth or worldliness, making the pseudo ghost story here further tangible. It’s a smart choice, ultimately, as a means of differentiating it from mere summary of the source text, and I think vitally centers what is important to Kaneko here — love, grief, and violence, all contextualized by youth.
While less dense (if no less ambitious) than The Heart of Thomas, Summer Vacation 1999’s uncannily sharp decision to pare itself down to these essential, broad themes, and typify and specify and centralize them into something that rejects coy universality and instead feels singular even in spite of its extensive, legible sources is electric. It is also authentic to itself, and to that self-seriousness of youth, to the recognizable (for me) tempos of childish and yet no less real harm. There aren’t many films like this; other stories with a similar interest in adolescent violence and confused desired, many of which I consider favorites (Veneno para las hadas comes to mind, as does Mais ne nous délivrez pas du mal) tend towards horror and the abject, which so truly works, but leaves room for the niche of this film, a more tender, haunted, loving affair. That this film changes the resolution of the manga from something grounded and composite of its greater number of thematic interests to something emotive and sublimated and ecstatic cements how special of a move this makes. I do not see myself here, it’s not nearly so egocentric or imposing. Instead, I feel for the arcs of these characters, what they represent and do, as I must have for the children around me when I was their age. I am reminded of my age and my fallibility. I am reminded to love like I could when I was young.