Written and directed by Shôgo Kusano, co-written by Naoto Asahara, Jun is a high school boy concealing his homosexuality. One day, he meets Sae, a female classmate and closet Boys Love comic fan, the two become close until one day, Sae confesses her love for Jun. Starring: Fûju Kamio, Anna Yamada, Oshiro Maeda, Ryota Miura, Tôko Miura, Daichi Watanabe and Tsubasa Imai.
High-school is one of the few experiences which translates no matter the country or the language, nearly everyone can relate to that time of intense pressure, anxiety and self-doubt. Emotions which are only exaggerated further by also being gay and constantly trying to hide that from your friends and family. What She Likes captures a universal story, and does so in a sweet and compelling manner. It plays out like familiar high-school stories but at no point does it feel unoriginal or superficial, it has a gentle emotion and sincerity which effortlessly draw you in. It handles the topic of coming out well, bringing through Jun’s (Fûju Kamio) feelings of shame from society’s lack of acceptance and his wish to please his loved ones respectfully. It doesn’t lean too heavily on discrimination, bullying or self-hate, they come through in a way that accents the larger story of friendship.
The gentle, caring and affecting nature to this story is very much helped by the performances from its core cast Fûju Kamio, Anna Yamada and Oshiro Maeda. Together they have such a natural chemistry, each adding a different personality and energy. While Kamio’s Jun is shy, introverted and anxious, Yamada’s Sae is enthusiastic and generous, and Maeda’s Ryohei is brash and bubbly but hiding a surprising depth. They’re an undeniably lovable bunch, who are extremely enjoyable to watch at work. The individual experiences that they bring to the table create an atmosphere which walks the line between hope and sadness; a key element of why this film holds your attention so well, it’s not all melodramatics, broken hearts and cheesy moments. The cast is then only improved further by the brief but memorable appearances from Tôko Miura and Daichi Watanabe, they both have such an energetic and charismatic presence. Fans of Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car will recognise Miura from her phenomenal performance as Misaki.
Another aspect which helps this film achieve a genuine and touching air is Shôgo Kusano’s direction. It has a stillness and humble quality, unlike a lot of modern films surrounding youth it doesn’t go in for adding tonnes of colour, fast editing or obscure angles, there’s a skilful simplicity to his style. The shyness and kindness of Jun permeates the visual, it takes on this story with a thoughtful and patient style. It still pulls through a few key high-school moments, it wouldn’t be a teen film without an emotional speech and it’s a fantastic moment. It also explores Jun’s internal conflict extremely well, there’s a few creative choices which push it further but the overall handling is mature and understated while still tapping into the raw emotion.
What She Likes is a wonderful addition to the world of queer coming of age stories. Shôgo Kusano, and Naoto Asahara’s writing is compelling, compassionate and sweet, coming across sincere and heartfelt which is not a common or easy thing for teen cinema. There’s a superb cast at work who all bring individual charm and personality to their characters, creating a loving and fun group to watch. It deals with all the emotion that come with being a queer person going through high-school in a mature and thoughtful manner. It’s absorbing from start to finish, it never goes in for cheap melodrama or trying to inject the visual with an overload of colour, it has a simple, honest style.