Summer Vacation 1999 – Queer East Film Festival

Reviewer: Richard Maguire

Writers: Moto Hagio and Rio Kishida

Director: Shûsuke Kaneko

A cult Japanese Gothic thriller that we’ve never heard of, Summer Vacation 1999 comes to the Queer East Film Festival. There is probably a good reason why it’s not on everyone’s radar. Horribly dated and tirelessly repetitive, this story about unrequited love at an all-boys boarding school has a few interesting queer moments but it’s a curio that yields little.

Of course, in 1988 when it was first released, this examination of boyhood passions must have been revolutionary and shocking, especially as the four boys left to fend for themselves in a school during a hot summer are played by female actors, making their crushes more familiar, perhaps more palatable to audiences. But this is not Brideshead Revisited and nor it is Turn of the Screw.

The film begins with Yu throwing himself over the cliff that protrudes over a lake. Even though his body is never recovered he’s presumed dead by the other three boys who have to stay on at school during the long vacation when all the other boys go home to their families. However, unlike The Holdovers, no staff member remains to look after the summer orphans. Instead, these boys are all alone, making omelettes with the help of a fancy egg-cracking machine which, apart from some rudimentary computers, is the only sign that this film is set 11 years into the future.

The days pass uneventfully until a new boy arrives, looking exactly like the believed-to-be-dead Yu. He introduces himself as Kaoru and just about manages to convince the other boys that he isn’t Yu, or at least Yu’s ghost, come to claim revenge for his death. The new boy is taken into the neo-classical school building where he chooses Yu’s old room for his own.

It quickly becomes apparent that Yu committed suicide because of unrequited love. His crush on older boy Kazuhiko was never returned, but possibly Kaoru has a better chance of gaining Kazuhiko’s affections. However, Kaoru has competition as the other senior also fancies Kazuhiko. The film explores these entanglements in sluggish detail.

Based on the manga series of 1974 The Heart of Thomas, which set the action in Germany, Shûsuke Kaneko’s film is full of dark corridors and white curtains blowing in the wind, but any eerie atmospherics are ruined by the overly romantic music which often plays in the background. The manga series was designed for young women, but it’s unclear whether Kaneko is aiming for the same audience. It’s all very daring, but it feels wet and soppy in 2024.

Queer East Festival 2024 takes place 17 – 28 April across venues in London.

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Gothic curio

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The Reviews Hub Film Team is under the editorship of Maryam Philpott.

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