When drag queen and bar owner “Natchan” dies unexpectedly, her three closest friends and fellow drag queens embark on a road trip to pay their final respects while attempting to navigate Japan’s conservative social conventions without revealing Natchan’s biggest secret to her family. Directed by Yasujirō Tanaka, Natchan’s Little Secret (ひみつのなっちゃん) stars Kenichi Takitō, Shū Watanabe, and Tomoya Maeno as drag queens “Virgin”, “Morilyn”, and “Zubuko”.
All done up in her hair and makeup, Virgin dances alone in her apartment before receiving a phone call alerting her to the untimely death of her friend and fellow drag queen, Natchan. At the hospital, Virgin’s friend and Natchan’s employee, Morilyn, hysterics over their loss. It’s only once they are both confronted by the mortician that they realise they know very little about their beloved friend beyond her work history and taste in men.
After recruiting their friend and local TV celebrity Zubuko to help uncover Natchan’s past, and an awkward run-in with their friend’s mother, the trio set off on a road trip to Natchan’s hometown Gujo Hachiman, in the Gifu Prefecture for her funeral.
Aiming to explore the nuanced nature of LGBT+ life in a conservative country like Japan, Natchan’s Little Secret places importance on being yourself in the face of rigidity and not allowing the beliefs of others to warp how you see yourself. As Virgin, Morilyn, and Zubuko get closer to Natchan’s hometown, they each give voice to their own insecurities and inner struggles of living as their authentic selves in direct conflict with Japan’s homogeneous society, while worrying about giving too much about Natchan’s life in Tokyo away to those who knew her.
Natchan’s Little Secret has all the ingredients of a classic road adventure movie – from a set of wacky characters, an emotional driving force, and shenanigans along the route – but unfortunately falls several steps short of living up to the precedent set by its contemporaries. Clearly inspired by The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, the Australian classic is even referenced by Zubuko when she laments that their epic road trip will take place in a compact Toyota rather than a bus.
Unlike the much beloved Priscilla, the drag queens of Natchan’s Little Secret aren’t funny, loveable, or even relatable. Perhaps an unfortunate byproduct of LGBT+ culture and rights still not being fully incorporated into Japanese society, Virgin, Morilyn, and especially Zubuko come across as cringe-worthy caricatures. As a result, whatever heart the film had in the script was mostly suppressed in the final product, only really appearing in brief moments Virgin had with a village elder and Natchan’s mother.
If Tomoya Maeno was using a reference for his characterisation of Zubuko, it would be of no surprise if he picked a tacky and crass representation of queer men purely for lack of a better reference; using shrill vocalisations, rapid wing-flap hand movements, and over-exaggerated facial expressions, Zubuko is easily the most annoying of the film’s main characters and ultimately offers little to the fabric of the movie. In comparison, Kenichi Takitō and Shū Watanabe’s more refined approach, while still not totally devoid of cringe moments, is easier to consume as a viewer and both Virgin and Morilyn offer more emotional depth than their peer.
While it is great to see Japan making strides to counteract the notion that the LGBT+ community is completely maligned by the nation and centring their stories, particularly stories of queer friendship and found family, it’s a shame that the end result of Natchan’s Little Secret lands a little too left of centre, ultimately feeling misaligned with the rest of the world.
Natchan’s Little Secret is screening in Australia nationally has part of the Japanese Film Festival.
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