Two of this Fall's most talked-about arthouse hits, the action anime, Promare and the psychological thriller, The Lighthouse, weren't advertised as "queer cinema." However, even without officially stating romantic or sexual feelings between their male leads, these two very different films both share a very explicit and intentional sense of homoeroticism. Should they be considered "queer cinema," and if not, are they at least exemplary of different directions that actual "queer cinema" should be taking?
Galo and Lio, the main characters in Promare, have widely been embraced by anime fans as a couple. Of course, shippers are quick to jump on any signs of chemistry between characters, so fandom embracing a gay pairing doesn't generally mean it's canon. Promare, though, is hard to watch and not read it as a romance. The emotional climax of the film involves Galo giving Lio the Kiss of Life, which you could argue is just magic CPR but is presented more like Snow White. The main visual motif of Lio and his fellow Mad Burnish is pink triangles, a design choice with obvious symbolic meaning. The soundtrack is filled with love songs ("So spend some time with me/I really like your company!" go the lyrics to "NEXUS"), and without a single heterosexual couple in the whole film, there's only one romance they could possibly be about.
The creative team behind Promare, however, has been somewhat coy about their intentions with Galo and Lio's relationship. Creative producer Hiromi Wakabayashi has had the most to say about the Kiss of Life scene. At the US premiere at Anime Expo, he initially insisted "it's rescue, not gay," but then proceeded to say that if the fans think it's gay, then it could be. At the Scotland Loves Anime festival screening in Edinburgh on October 19, Wakabayashi described reactions to the scene as "interesting."
Unlike Lio and Galo in Promare, The Lighthouse's main character Ephraim (Robert Pattinson) does seem to have some sexual interest in women... Or, at least, in mermaids. When he masturbates to a mermaid figurine, however, Ephraim's fantasies jump back and forth between a mermaid and a male lumberjack. The most logical interpretation of that scene is that Ephraim as bisexual, and the most natural interpretation of the film as a whole is to see it as an intense sadomasochistic relationship between him and the old sea captain Thomas (Willem Dafoe).
Early in the film, Ephraim stares through a peephole at Thomas' butt. The two of them almost kiss before wrestling with each other. When Ephraim attacks Thomas in a fit of madness, his visions of Thomas are intercut with the mermaid from the earlier fantasy, and before burying the old man alive, Ephraim walks his former master on a leash, ordering him to bark like a dog.
When interviewed about The Lighthouse's heavy homoeroticism by The Huffington Post, it's interesting to note the big difference between the actors' responses and director Robert Eggers'. Eggers offers a similarly noncommital response about The Lighthouse's queerness as Wakabayashi did about Promare's, saying: "Am I saying these characters are gay? No. I’m not saying they're not either." Dafoe, in contrast, calls the film's queer subtext a "no-brainer," and Pattinson says the film is "really a love story." Pattinson's also compared the film to 50 Shades of Grey.
In a way, films like Promare and The Lighthouse are doing the opposite of how J.K. Rowling handled Dumbledore in Harry Potter or how the MCU handled Valkyrie in Thor: Ragnarok. In the latter cases, the characters' sexualities are officially stated by the writers, but you could barely get a hint of that from reading or watching the source material. (Though thankfully, it seems Thor: Love and Thunder will be less vague in regards to Valkyrie's bisexuality). In contrast, Promare and The Lighthouse's characters aren't officially queer, but it's impossible to watch those films and not come away with the impression that they are without some serious denial.
This isn't "queerbaiting" of the kind you see in Sherlock or Supernatural either, where hints of chemistry fans glom onto are then undercut by "no homo" moments. There's not a single "no homo" moment in Promare; it almost looks like there might be one when Galo acts embarrassed by the kiss, but he makes it's clear he's only grossed out as a firefighter starting a fire and not as a man kissing another man. The "no homo" moments in The Lighthouse, meanwhile, aren't actually saying the characters aren't queer but instead showing that the characters are in denial of their potential queerness because of 19th-century toxic masculinity.
Will either of these films get nominated for a GLAAD Award? Probably not. That there's any potential for deniability might make them unsatisfying as queer representation for many. Their extremely blatant plausibility, however, makes both Promare and The Lighthouse a great deal more queer-inclusive than most other films in theaters. Furthermore, they're the type of genre films we need to see more LGBTQ characters in. Prestige Oscar-bait dramas are all well and good, but we need LGBTQ characters in big, ridiculous action cartoons like Promare and strange, artsy, pseudo-Lovecraftian experiments like The Lighthouse as well.
Even if you don't consider these films explicit enough about their characters' identities to count as queer cinema, they serve as two different exemplary models for how more clear-cut queer cinema could work in the future.
Directed by Robert Eggers from a script he wrote with Max Eggers, The Lighthouse stars Robert Pattinson, Willem Dafoe and Valeriia Karaman. The film is now playing in limited release.
Directed by Hiroyuki Imaishi, Promare will return to theaters by popular demand as a Fathom Event on December 8.
KEEP READING: How 'Wincest' Became Supernatural Canon