Bye Bye Love, 50th anniversary: this gender-fluid couple-on-the-run movie had no precedent in Japanese cinema

It has taken 50 years for pioneering Japanese indie feature Bye Bye Love to be ‘discovered’ and screened, happily while its writer-director Fujisawa Isao (now 82) remains active. Its first-ever screening in London closes this year’s Queer East Festival.

16 April 2024

By Tony Rayns

Bye Bye Love (1974)

The young man who calls himself Utamaro (after the painter) is on the street, phoning the girlfriend he’s been living with, when he’s dumped. His reactions are nihilistic, macho and misogynistic. Moments later, across the street, he literally bumps into a young woman in a hurry, clutching a Doors LP, who says she’s being harassed by a pervert. Utamaro deliberately trips up the man pursuing her and is promptly arrested for abetting a shoplifter. But he overpowers the cop escorting him into custody and makes off with the man’s gun…

This opening scene is the prelude to a broadly generic road movie in which a police dragnet slowly closes in on a doomed romantic couple as they steal, swindle and murder their way up the east coast of Honshu towards their date with destiny in Aomori. Broadly generic, but also very singular: Bye Bye Love (1974) is an independent feature made at a time when they were thin on the ground in Japan, entirely outside the mainstream film industry, cast with unknowns and directed, written and produced by a man whose only previous credits were as assistant to the arthouse director Teshigahara Hiroshi and the action-crime thriller director Furuhata Yasuo. 

Even more singular: Utamaro’s partner in his quest for ‘freedom’ presents as female (he nicknames her ‘Giko’), but he soon discovers that she’s gender-fluid and has male genitals. The director Fujisawa Isao’s depiction of their platonic but close and emotional relationship had no precedent in Japanese cinema. He even writes a scene in which Utamaro muses that he could turn gay to consummate the relationship.

Bye Bye Love (1974)

Films in Japan were slow to register the country’s extensive queer subculture. Kato Tai’s Cruel Story of the Shogunate’s Downfall (1964) had referenced homosexuality in the ranks of the Shinsengumi, a 19th-century samurai militia, an open secret later explored much more explicitly by Oshima Nagisa in his last feature Gohatto (1999). In 1969 the avant-garde intellectual Matsumoto Toshio made his debut feature Funeral Parade of Roses, a clever parody of the Oedipus story in which the protagonist, a young drag-queen, kills his mother and sleeps with his father. But it was not until nearly 10 years after Bye Bye Love that the porn industry began producing gay features, and the rise of openly gay indie filmmakers like Oki Hiroyuki, Imaizumi Koichi and Hashiguchi Ryosuke didn’t begin until the 1990s. More recently, such directors as Kitano Takeshi and the late Ishii Takashi began including queer scenes and characters in their movies. 

There’s no immediately available information about how or where Bye Bye Love was screened in the mid-70s, but the film was last year rescued from oblivion by another key player in Japan’s modern queer cinema, the producer and sometimes director Suzuki Akihiro, who unearthed the negative, made a new print and re-premiered the film in an online forum. The current screenings in festivals like Queer East are a direct result of Suzuki’s determination to retrieve the film.

No one with previous experience of low-budget indie features by first-time directors will be surprised to learn that Bye Bye Love is a somewhat rickety piece of work. Weirdly, it draws on both sides of director Fujisawa’s training. His time with Teshigahara, working on two adaptations from the novels of modernist writer Abe Kobo (Woman of the Dunes, 1964, and The Face of Another, 1966), seemingly led him to frame his own film as a psychedelic odyssey with a dream-logic narrative, an intense sexual episode and hyper-vivid lyrical interludes. And his time with Furuhata at the Toei company clearly fed into the dragnet aspects of the story, from the audio snippets of police reports to scenes of gunplay almost worthy of Bonnie and Clyde (1967). So Bye Bye Love occupies a liminal space between genre-movie conventions and psycho-sexual drama quite unlike any Japanese film before it. Obviously its picture of a macho chancer who’s changed by his close encounter with inter-sexuality gives it a very particular edge.

Bye Bye Love (1974)

There are suggestions, especially in the early scenes, that Fujisawa also wanted to give the film social and political resonances. Soon after their chance meeting on the street, Utamaro discovers that Giko is the kept partner of an American man, apparently an officer from the US Embassy, rather unsubtly named ‘Nixon’. The couple’s flight from justice is precipitated by Utamaro’s furious attack on Nixon and his property, starting with wrecking his apartment – which is decorated with American iconography and imitations of classical statues. But the anti-Americanism feels quite shallow, since the couple’s odyssey echoes those of so many US criminals on the run, right up to Terrence Malick’s Badlands, made just one year earlier in 1973. 

Ultimately, it’s the film’s challenging sexual dimension which makes it notable – and of lasting interest. That, and the fiercely committed performances of its two lead actors, Tamura Ren as Utamaro and Ichijo Miyabi as Giko.

The Queer East Film Festival runs 17 to 28 April. Bye Bye Love is the closing night screening at BFI Southbank. Explore other screenings at BFI Southbank.

Other things to explore