Among its many horrors, there was one small silver lining to this year: the transition to digital screenings of new films meant that film fans outside of a small cluster of major cities finally had the opportunity to watch limited run and festival films. This was true in the world of anime as well, which is how I got access to gay-romance-slash-yakuza-drama Twittering Birds Never Fly – The Clouds Gather. It is the height of trashtainment melodrama and I cannot wait to watch another one.
Twittering Birds follows Yashiro, a yakuza boss resented by the organization’s other high-ranking players as a mouthy young upstart who slept his way to the top. Into this nest of political tension and sexual rumor comes Yashiro’s new bodyguard Domeki, a straight-laced sort who’s instantly fascinated by his new boss. The story that unfolds is one about power dynamics: the push and pull of Yashiro and Domeki’s relationship becoming sexual while also still being boss and underling, the struggle for power among the yakuza, and the traumatic pasts that plague the main cast.
The last point is particularly noteworthy given how notorious the BL (boys’ love) genre is for romanticizing sexual assault. While the landscape has changed in the manga world, the most popular adapted titles often play “no means yes” completely straight, as though they can’t think of a consensual way for two dudes to bang the first time. Twittering Birds isn’t entirely free of power imbalances (and it also sets a few annoying flags about how kink enthusiast Yashiro has never actually had sex with anyone he loves before), but it also builds an examination of consent into its narrative. It’s a story with a lot of explicit sex, much of which is played as deliberately awkward or comedic so that the few sparks of genuine intimacy between Yashiro and Domeki stand out.
But when the story delves into assault — including several characters who are survivors of childhood sexual abuse — it plays them with the draining horror they deserve. It makes for a heavy film, as you might expect, one that emphasizes characters sitting around and talking above all else. At times the plot rides on the edge of being comical in the amount of lurid grit it piles on, and yet the moments of horror still manage to hit right in the gut.
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As the subtitle might suggest, this is actually the first in a planned trilogy of films based on an ongoing manga. It’s also the first of three films produced in 2020 by the newly formed label Blue Lynx, which focuses exclusively on BL titles (the other two titles, a given sequel and L’étranger de la Plage, have yet to premiere on the English market). The movie’s animation studio, GRIZZLY, is likewise new and dedicated to animating queer male romance, with only one two-episode OVA under its belt prior to this project. Probably the most experienced name is director Kaori Makita, who previously cut her teeth directing episodes for Yuri!!! On ICE, SARAZANMAI, and Banana Fish. That combination of passionate dedication and relative inexperience make the Twittering Birds viewing experience both refreshing and a bit lumpy.
The animation is functional but occasionally stiff when asked to do much more than heated stares, and censorship decisions mean that there’s at least one blowjob scene where Yashiro is passionately going to town on a bit of empty air. The trilogy format also means that the film stops abruptly on a major cliffhanger, with only the slate announcement of two more films to keep it all from feeling like a waste of time. Still, I keep thinking about it; and if you’re looking for a pulpy character drama that’s spiritually an escapee from the 90s erotic thriller boom, I’d recommend plunking down the $8 for a rental.