LA-based Canadian queer filmmaker, writer, and designer Graham Kolbeins spent four years directing and editing his vibrant and frequently fascinating debut feature documentary, Queer Japan (クィア・ジャパン), which introduces us to a diverse range of contemporary LGBTQ+ artists and activists through 100 interviews. It is released in the US and Canada on Friday December 11th. Kolbeins’ other screen work includes the short films, The House of Gay Art and PAISA, and the documentary webseries, Rad Queers, which profiled subjects including trans artist Edie Fake and the Latinx leather organization Payasos L.A. He is the co-editor of two books on Japanese gay art: The Passion of Gengoroh Tagame and Massive: Gay Erotic Manga and the Men Who Make It. Kolbeins also the co-founder and creative director of the apparel brand MASSIVE GOODS, which makes fashion, print projects, and international tours with queer and feminist artists from Japan including Jiraiya.
Ahead of the North American release of Queer Japan, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann spoke with Graham Kolbeins, who co-wrote and edited as well as directed the film, about what sparked his interest in LGBTQ+ Japan, queer history in the country, the intolerance and homophobia the community encounters, the nuance and evolution of LGBTQ+ related language, and which queer films have resonated with him the most.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: One of the things I loved about the film is that it really felt like you were allowing your subjects to speak for themselves, a million miles away from one of those out-dated vintage shorts that they play on TCM in between features that are full of exoticism and fetishisation in their exploration of foreign countries. Could you talk a bit about your approach to examining queer culture in Japan?
Graham Kolbeins: “Thank you for pointing that out, yes, it was always a really important distinction that we wanted to make because so many of the documentaries that have been filmed in Japan have taken this very sensationalistic tone, and there’s a lot of othering and fetishisation towards Japanese culture in the Western media. Even the couple of things that I have seen that approached the subject of LGBT rights in Japan did it from a very American centric point of view. Oftentimes a US program will send over a host and then the host will ask questions, and there tends to be a lot of assumptions about how things are supposed to be based on an American-centric worldview. So I wanted to take a step back from being in the documentary myself, I didn’t want my voice or face to be in a story that’s really not my own. It’s the story of all the people who came together to participate in the film. We wanted to make the conversations as organic as possible, so we started with a list of questions for each person, but tried to allow the conversations to just flow and follow up on the things that were the most important to each interview subject.”
How did you first became interested in Japan and its LGBTQ+ inhabitants and how did that lead to you making the documentary?
“It’s been kind of a long journey for me personally. I grew up surrounded by manga and anime that was constantly stoking my imagination and curiosity. Sailor Moon is one of the first anime that I remember making a big impact on me as a kid. There were so many different forms of Japanese pop culture out there that I was obsessed with and as I began to explore my sexuality as a teenager and start to come into my own identity as a queer person, I started looking for images and artwork that really reflected my experience or spoke to me. As a 16-year-old or 17-year-old I was really shocked and excited to come across the artwork of Japanese gay manga artists like Gengoroh Tagame, who is one of the main subjects in the film, and Jiraiya, and all these other great gay artists who were putting out their work in a monthly gay magazine called G-men, among other Japanese gay publications. It just seemed so far and beyond what was available in North American print at that time in terms of the representation of eroticised bigger male bodies, that body positive representation that was coming through in these various artists’ work in G-men.”
“So that’s what really like sparked my initial interest in Japanese queer culture and it wasn’t until a decade later when I was working with the Asian American pop culture magazine Giant Robot at San Diego Comic Con that I started to think maybe there is a space for this kind of artwork to be published in English. I’d noticed that no one else was putting out English language translations of Gengoroh Tagame and other artists of his ilk. So I got together with Anne Ishii, who has become my longtime collaborator, to try to put out English language translations of gay manga. We started on that journey back in 2011, and over the course of the next decade we worked with all these different artists. We had North American tours for Gengoroh Tagame, and Jiraiya, and we worked with the feminist manga artist, Rokudenashiko. She published a memoir about her imprisonment on obscenity charges. We were continuing to get deeper and deeper into various facets of Japanese pop culture and queer culture and as I kept going over to Tokyo on trips for those projects I started seeing how diverse and vibrant the queer scene in Japan was, beyond this one narrow interest that I had of gay manga artists. That’s what inspired the creation of this film; to try and document the breadth and originality of so much of Japanese queer culture in the contemporary moment.”
That’s interesting, because I think focusing on gay manga art or purely on Gengoroh Tagame and his and incredible work would have made for a compelling documentary, but I’m glad that you opened it up to queer culture in Japan more generally. Can you give a sense of the variety of subjects we meet during the film?
“Yeah, for sure. So we started with a handful of people who we had connections to already or people who were recommended to us by friends, including Gengoroh Tagame. At the time we were filming he was breaking through into mainstream success in Japan and starting to have a North American following as well. So we followed him around.”
“We also got to know the butoh dancer, Atsushi Matsuda. He is this incredible dance artist who is in the Dairakudakan troupe, which is one of the most world renowned Butoh groups. He started out as a drag queen in Osaka, and Anne Ishii and myself met him originally at one of the parties we threw in Tokyo for the release of our book, Massive: Gay Erotic Manga and the Men Who Make It. We just saw Atsushi dancing on the dance floor in his very unique and energetic way and we became fast friends after that.”
“One of our other subjects is Nogi Sumiko. She’s an artist who does all kinds of different multimedia artworks, but is perhaps best known for her performance in in a sheep costume and she shows us some of the antics that she gets up to when she performs as the sheep in the film.”
“Another person we were really proud to have in the film is trans rights activist Tomato Hatakeno. She writes video game guidebooks as her day job and when she’s not working doing that she gets to do her activism, which she’s been doing for 20 years. She runs a resource called Transgender Cafe, one of the oldest trans websites on the Internet and she is someone who has always been at the forefront of pushing the boundaries in the queer community.”
What about the local politician who we meet?
“Aya Kamikawa. She is a Setagaya ward council woman and was the first openly transgender elected official in Japan. She has been in politics since the early 2000s and campaigned openly as a trans woman, and was fighting for legal rights for LGBT people in general. After her election she was able to get meetings with people in the National Diet, which is like Japan’s Congress, and shortly after her election she was able to help pass a national bill allowing transgender people to have their gender identity recognised. It’s a law that has some flaws in it, as we explore in the film, but it’s better than the absence of law that existed before. Since then she’s been fighting in various arenas and has been at the forefront of advocating for marriage equality. She helped pass the partnership certificate program in Setagaya, which was one of the first two regional wards in Japan that made recognition for same sex couples an official part of law, though it doesn’t provide the same benefits as full marriage equality.”
Something that makes the watching the film a rich experience is that it isn’t just a snapshot of current LGBTQ+ folks and culture in Japan, but through your subjects we get decades of history, don’t we? Was that intentional from the beginning or was it something that came about from talking to people?
“It was a tricky balance at the beginning because there is so much fascinating history in Japan pertaining to LGBT expression and identities and various cultural representation of gender and sexuality going back to the Edo period and beyond. I’ve done a lot of research on that subject and found it really fascinating, but we wanted to make a film that was mostly rooted in the contemporary moment. We wanted to bring out the history a little bit through our interviews and so it was really awesome when we got to speak with Tetsuro Onitsuka, who is one of the founding members of a community center in in Osaka called dista. He is also a historian and professor and gave us some really good broad strokes on how things have changed in the past two centuries, especially since Japan was forced to open to Western trade and the Meiji Restoration in the mid 1800s ushered in this rapid westernization that imported a lot of Christian values or Western perspectives on gender and sexuality. So for many decades there was a sort of sweeping under the rug of LGBT culture and identities as a hiding of “uncivilised” things from the Japanese past. There’s so much fascinating history there and I think it deserves to be told in its own long-format documentary, or there are already plenty of books out there. I am glad though that we could at least touch on some of those issues while remaining rooted in the present moment.”
In exploring and celebrating sexuality and gender identity I guess inevitably you needed to include some of what the LGBTQ+ community in Japan is up against in terms of homophobia in a conservative culture? Why did you decide to include footage of the right-wing politician Mio Sugita?
“There’s a lot of different sides to homophobia and the resulting lack of visibility that the LGBT+ community faces in Japan, but so much of it is often quite subtle and unspoken. For instance the Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who recently stepped down, but who’d basically been part of the ruling of Japan for more than 20 years, would never really like come out and say anything explicitly anti-LGBT. However, Abe stood firm to his position that the Japanese constitution does not allow for same sex marriage and he kind of just left it at that. Meanwhile, there is this politician Mio Sugita who is in the same ruling conservative party as Abe, but she is much more on the fringe and she’s extreme right wing and doesn’t hold back with her views. So while not everyone in her party might hold the same views as her, she’s articulating some of those unspoken perspectives that are accepted and tolerated about LGBT people. I think it’s a little bit different than some of the homophobia that we experience in the West, which is often rooted in a Judeo Christian point of view that homosexuality is a sin, and it’s like wrapped up in religion. Whereas in Japan there hasn’t been historical oppression of LGBT people through the primary religions, which are Buddhism and Shinto, instead it’s much more of a social stigma that LGBT people face. Mio Sugita expresses that perfectly when she says if we encourage or are accepting of LGBTQ people how are they going to return to normalcy later on, if they get these messages when they’re young? The thing that she seems most concerned about is that accepting an LGBT lifestyle means an aberration from the norm, and her idea that these people are “unproductive” because they supposedly aren’t reproducing and making the next generation which is a very eugenic point of view. As one of activists points out in the film it is really wrong to talk about people in terms of productivity. So I felt like I wanted to give a taste of the homophobia in Japanese culture without making the whole film about it. I think it paired nicely to compare Mio Sugita’s comments about same sex grade school crushes to the actual lived experiences of one of our interview subjects who experienced a lot of discrimination in school because she came out as a lesbian and she managed to survive those struggles, but a lot of kids don’t.”
Could you just talk about the the visual style of the film. I love the the use of text and the way it moves around, it’s so dynamic maybe. What were your general guiding principles for the look of the of the documentary?
“With the text it was always really important for the film to be as accessible as possible to Japanese audiences and international English speaking audiences, so we decided to introduce certain vocabulary words that various people brought up in in our discussion throughout the film. Rather than trying to find an English equivalent for some of these words, it helps to be able to stop and analyse them for a moment and see what the extended meanings behind these terms are. Take something simple like “okama”, which is kind of a gay slur but it’s also used in a very friendly way between certain people in the gay community. Sometimes I’ve seen English people translate in a “okama” as “faggot”, but I think it really lacks the nuance that the term holds. So we show it early on with three definition. One is a cooking pot, that’s what that word originally meant. Then it became slang for a man’s ass, and then it became a gay slur. So we have all three of the definitions on screen in Japanese and English, and we do that for a variety of terms throughout. This is a film about language in many ways, and how language constructs identity, so we wanted to lean into that and not shy away from the nuance of language. So hopefully, watching the film, whether you’re a Japanese or an English speaker, you’ll start to see some of the shades of grey in between these identities.”
When you a group of your main subjects together at one point towards the end of the film that’s actually partly what they’re discussing in that scene isn’t it?
“Yeah, there’s a lot of discussion of which terms people feel comfortable with, and how things change. One of our interviewees, Hiroshi Hasegawa is this amazing writer, editor and HIV activist, who has been going to gay bars in Tokyo since the late 70s, early 80s. And he talks about how at that time, the popular term was homo, All the gay men were calling each other homo, And now that’s discriminatory language. And gay is more popular. So, you know, it’s interesting to hear the perspective on how language shifts, and it’s gonna continue to shift.”
Tell me about your music choices for the film.
“Most of the score was composed by Will Wiesenfeld, who goes by Baths as an electronic artist. He also has a side project called Geotic, which is mostly ambient music. Will was really generous with his catalogue and allowed us to use a lot of his original compositions for the film. He’s actually somebody who I got to know through my interest in gay manga, and he’s a huge fan of a lot of the artists that I’ve worked with over the years. So it was really cool to collaborate with him and match up his music to some of these beautiful themes.
Finally what’s your favourite LGBTQ+ film, TV series, play, book, graphic novel, music, or artwork? Or you could choose a person who identifies as LGBTQ+ that’s made an impact on you and resonated with you over the years?
“Let’s stick with film. A film that had a very spiritual influence on Queer Japan, and one of my favourite films in general, is Funeral Parade of Roses. It’s a 1969 experimental narrative feature from Japan that centres on a gay bar in Tokyo, and the drag queens who work there. There is this sort of like Oedipus plot going on, and then there are all kinds of experimental film techniques happening and we just see so many incredible images in that film. It has been cited as a direct influence on Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, which came a few years after, so it’s a really important part of film history. It’s also amazing to see what Tokyo’s queer community was like 50 years ago. So I recommend anyone who enjoys Queer Japan to go check that out.”
“Then I have to mention a couple other queer films that have stayed with me over the years. Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together has always been one of my favourites. It’s the story of this gay love affair that’s very hot and cold, on again, off again, of these two men from Hong Kong who are traveling together in South America. It’s basically the tumultuous drama of their relationship, and it was something I saw as a teenager and it really resonated with me. It’s such a beautiful film and I feel like it has impacted a lot of other queer films in the decades that came after it. You can see some of its stylistic imprint on Moonlight for instance.”
“And then finally, one of my favourite gay filmmakers ever is Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and I particularly love his film Fox and His Friends. It’s a German film from 1975 about this gay carney who is down on his luck, and he spends his last coin on a lottery ticket and he wins and becomes part of the upper class gay elite, much to his own personal downfall. It’s a dark film, but so beautiful. I feel like Fox is His Friends is one of the few gay films that I’ve seen that doesn’t make sexuality the primary subject of the story and it’s not a gay hero being someone that we’re rooting for to overcome adversity, which is a very common plot line in LGBT films for obvious reason. I really appreciate how Fox and His Friends delivers this incredible amount of nuance and the portrayal of the titular Fox is a very ambiguous and chaotic figure who makes bad decisions, who isn’t necessarily a traditional hero and yet you feel empathy for him. It’s a very thoughtful and unique film exploring how class and sexuality intersect, and all of that happening in the 1970s is really astonishing to me. So I just hold that film dear to my heart.”
By James Kleinmann
Graham Kolbeins’ feature debut Queer Japan is available in the US and Canada from Friday December 11th via Theatrical At Home and on Digital HD, including Apple TV, Prime Video and Google Play. For more on how to see the film head to the official Queer Japan website.