Queer movies of the 80s and 90s always have a tinge of apocalyptic dread to them. The mainstreaming of the gay rights movement meant the rise of a far more vocal opposition in the form of religious conservatism, and the AIDS crisis threatened nothing less than our extinction. The films of this era tend to reflect a sense of encroaching doom, the inevitability of decay in an uncaring world. That’s the case in America, anyway. I’m not as well versed in the queer history of Japan, but Hisayasu Sato’s Muscle shares much of the same concerns of the American queer cinema of the late 80s. This is a film where queer desire is self-destruction.
We follow Ryuzaki, a gay man who edits a magazine called Muscle. The opening sequence is a Muscle photoshoot, all close-ups on glistening rock-hard bodies as they flex and twist alluringly. There’s an innocence to this opening that the film throws away almost instantly. It establishes queerness as irresistible and perfectly natural. It presents these bodies as if to say, “Why wouldn’t you be turned on?” It uses the bodybuilding magazine to conflate the ostensibly hetero desire for a muscular body with the sexualized desire for the same body.
When Ryuzaki’s lover, Kitami, begins to develop a sadistic streak, Ryuzaki cuts his arm off. The abstraction of this moment makes it unclear whether this was an act of self-defense or not. Muscle finds love within violence and violence within love, specifically queer love. A year after this incident, Ryuzaki has been released from prison, and the film follows him on his search both for Kitami and a copy of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salo.
Sato’s vision of queerness as obsessive and sadomasochistic reflects the cultural anxieties of the community in the late 1980s. AIDS hit Japan just as it hit America, and it was in full destructive force around the time of Muscle’s release. I can’t imagine how it must have been to be a gay man at the time, knowing that your sexuality could get you horrifically killed, and that the wider world wouldn’t care. That anxiety is all over Muscle. Ryuzaki desperately seeks out Kitami, a man whose sexuality is inseparable from violence. Does he want to be destroyed? Does he distinguish between that destruction and love? He carries around Kitami’s arm in a jar, fondling it as he wakes from sex dreams (or are they memories?) and using it to masturbate. He is so attached to this remnant of the brutality that ended their relationship. To him, brutality is their relationship.
The film ends on the sort of tragicomic note that mainstream queer films can’t get away with today. Loud voices in the modern queer community are terrified of transgression, of not appearing to fit a cishet standard of “normal.” Something as provocative and, dare I say it, problematic as Muscle would be unacceptable in 2019. They would refuse to see it as the genuine expression of terror it is, terror at the seemingly unstoppable tragedy ravaging the community. I cherish queer art like Muscle, because it’s not sanitized for the sake of being relatable to a cishet audience. It’s honest, and with that honesty comes depravity and blood.