Graham Kolbeins’ documentary, Queer Japan, is packed with accounts of experiences and ideas from members of the LGBTQ community in Japan, the result of more than 100 interviews over three years. It gives insight into the lives of interesting and unconventional people who are challenging social norms for themselves and others.
For all its outward social conservatism and etiquette (making it in many ways a great place), Japan has a fairly dark underbelly when it comes to gender equality and sexuality. The opening sequence perfectly captures this, as a bald-headed man (Atsushi Matsuda) with a chunky septum piercing and visible tattoos (both taboo in Japan) executes butoh dance moves under the cherry blossom, while the hanami (cherry blossom viewing parties) go on around him.
A thrilling journey follows, as we meet erotic manga artists, drag queens, performance artists, politicians, activists and advocates. Even Tom of Finland gets a look-in. There are quite a lot of penises. In fact, at one point (well, three times actually) I was so distracted by the penises in the background that I forgot to read the subtitles.
The film’s subjects have either found ways to facilitate fun and freedom of expression for others (running a bar or club); or they express themselves through an alter ego (drag queen, misbehaving sheep, or using inflated rubber to create an entirely new physical shape); or they are trying to make positive change for others (photographer Leslie Kee’s Out In Japan x 1000 LGBT exhibit).
The film is well-balanced, with representation from L, G, B, T and Q communities: they tell their stories with pride, reflection and happiness. There are so many smiles. The sense of spending time with people who know, love and understand themselves was life-affirming.
The balance includes shadow (homophobic politicians, high school bullying, HIV/AIDS, limitations of sign language) and counterbalance (community centres, activist and advocacy groups, Pride parades, condom drops, changes to the law allowing a change of gender (albeit with requirements that challenge human rights), and recognition of same-sex partnerships in some cities).
Several interviewees refer to social division along lines of sexuality or race, but this is countered by the sense that everyone is in this together, against hate speech in all its forms, that taking joy in our differences can work for the whole of society. Rather than all being “good and facing the same way”, as Nogi Sumiko says in her sheep costume, there are many ways of being and expressing ourselves. “We all have fun in our own different ways”, says Saeborg, a performance artist. Drag queen, Vivienne Sato, says that if 100 people see her each will react differently, and she loves this.
Throughout, we are treated to stylish name captions and written explanations of Japanese terms in both English and Japanese, and these delighted me. They added cultural context and additional exposition of the world that I was seeing.
Queer Japan is a thoughtful, positive, well-rounded and well-researched documentary. Word-count limits here cannot do it justice. I defy you to watch it and not smile.
By Karen Smith
Queer Japan screened at the 2019 NewFest New York’s LGBTQ Film Festival. For more information of the film head to the official website here.