By Matthew Fullerton.
A welcomed addition to a wonderful run, in recent years, of international documentaries highlighting the experiences, struggles, and successes of LGBTQ people in countries not normally associated with sensitivity toward LGBTQ activism.”
Queer Japan, from Canadian filmmaker Graham Kolbeins and Altered Innocence, an American distributor of artistic LGBTQ films, is a colorful and informative documentary that highlights what might be described as a “boom” in LGBTQ activism and visibility in Japan. Kolbeins and company achieve this through profiles of dozens of individual LGBTQ artists, entertainers, entrepreneurs, activists, and politicians who are defying social norms or breaking rules to help their marginalized community continue to emerge from the shadows in a country that, despite its world-renowned technological and pop-cultural innovations, is still largely unaware of, or even insensitive to, the varied LGBTQ causes and quests for equality and understanding. A recent online survey, for instance, demonstrated that roughly a quarter of LGBTQ people in Japan have been outed or have had their orientation or gender revealed without their consent, while on the official policy front, same-sex couples still do not have the same legal protections as opposite-sex ones. In addition, many Japanese conservatives, as revealed by one of Queer Japan’s subjects, consider homosexuality a disease that can be cured through debunked “Gender Identity Disorder” treatments in psychiatric hospitals. In light of such ingrained attitudes and policies, official and otherwise, Queer Japan could be described as a document of LGBTQ profiles in courage and innovation.
One of the film’s greatest strengths is the range of its subjects, from drag queens talking frankly about sexuality, sexual orientation and their personal histories, to LGBTQ artists explaining the origins of their often-unusual crafts, to fetish-club goers, to community activists driven to make a difference for their marginalized community. As such, Queer Japan is touching, outrageous, fun, and educational, all at the same time. This is demonstrated in the profile of Department H, a cheerful and lively fetish club specializing in “Puppy play”, which involves club-goers dressing in rubber animal costumes and engaging in a form of playful BDSM. Drag queen entertainer Margarette, Department H’s hostess and MC, in a funny, frank and intelligent segment, explains the club’s dynamics and its colorful regulars and celebratory “nights of freedom”. From here, the film segues to the studio of non-binary Saeborg, a rubber costume designer who specializes in representing female livestock and farm animals and who sees rubber as a second skin. Other designers and artists profiled in Queer Japan include Nogi Sumiko, who is known for designing a popular scarf that has a female boob at each end, and renowned gay erotic manga artist Gengoroh Tagame. The Tagame segment is one of the film’s most intimate and revealing profiles in that it follows him closely on a journey to North America where he reconnects with old admirers and young adoring fans at galleries and pop culture events, testimony to the global reach of his unconventional (and likely shocking to many) work.
Equally diverse and interesting is the realm of political and community activism. Profiles here include politician Aya Kamikawa, the first transgender elected official in Japan, and her fight for the right to gender self-determination, and the Osaka rock band (HIV) doing community outreach through their songs about STIs and whose transgender leader is both master’s student and sex worker. Interviews with LGBTQ community-centre directors are highly informative, especially on the history of gay communities in Japan and the impact of the AIDS crisis on them. Tetsuro Onitsuka, the founder of Dista, an NGO dedicated to AIDS prevention in Doyamacho, Osaka’s gay district, clearly lays out this fascinating history for the viewer. During the Edo period (1603-1868) in Japan, Onitsuka tells us, sexuality was very open, and seeming without limits, with gays and lesbians and transgender people being a “natural presence”, to the point that they didn’t have special names or labels. However, during the subsequent Meiji era (1868-1912), which was marked by Japan opening up to the West after over two-and-a-half centuries of virtual self-isolation, things changed as Christian values infiltrated the country and sexual minorities were categorized and, consequently, marginalized, even becoming subjects for science and medicine. The filmmakers render these historical transitions vivid through the insertion of stills displaying woodblock prints of liberal social and sexual activities from the Edo period, which contrast heavily with more stilted images from the Meiji era.
Although Queer Japan might appear overly profile-heavy at times, the testimonies from its varied subjects are balanced nicely with contemporary, vibrant footage of Japanese night life, including Shinjuku and Ni-chōme, Japan’s biggest gay district. In this way, Queer Japan captures the vitality and diversity of the LGBTQ community in Japan as well as the dynamics between its various groups, which can be complex and, at times, divisive. These complexities are touched upon in the film’s segments on Tokyo’s LGBTQ bar scene and the experiences of Chiga Ogawa, the owner of a woman-only bar, Gold Finger. In recent years, she has worked at bridging gaps between sexual minority groups by reaching out to an FTM (Female-to-Male) bar (Grammy Tokyo). The middle-aged Ogawa is also a wealth of knowledge on gay history of Ni-chōme over the last three-to-four decades, revealing that the district was originally a dark place to keep activities in bars such as hers out of plain sight.
The paradox that was alluded to earlier – that Japanese culture is revered around the world while many Japanese people resist opening their hearts up to LGBTQ issues in their country – is effectively addressed by the modern and “dark” butoh dancer Atsushi Matsuda, one of the most intriguing individuals profiled in Queer Japan. Having gotten their start as a drag queen performer in a Kyoto club, Matsuda now travels the world performing with a butoh troupe, Daraikudakan. It is Matsuda who introduces early on in Queer Japan the slang word hentai – “abnormal sexuality”, or, in other words, perversion – which seems to have grown into an umbrella term for many LGBTQ activities and is, coincidentally, the H in the aforementioned BDSM club Department H. As such, the linguistic history and evolution of hentai and hen – peculiar, strange – parallels that of the expression ‘queer’ in the West. Likewise, drag queen and artist Vivienne Sato enlightens on language and identity in Queer Japan and Kolbeins’ team does a fine job of threading textual definitions for modern Japanese terms, including controversial ones and slurs, related to LGBTQ minorities whenever they are referenced, which heightens the film’s educational value.
Through its eclectic profiles of fascinating, unique and colorful people, Queer Japan is a welcomed addition to a wonderful run, in recent years, of international documentaries highlighting the experiences, struggles and successes of LGBTQ people in countries not normally associated with sensitivity toward LGBTQ activism, such as Brazil’s Bixa Travesty (2018 dir. Claudia Priscilla and Kiko Goifman) and Tunisia’s Upon the Shadow (2017 dir. Nada Mezni Hafaiedh).
Matthew Fullerton is an educator and part-time academic (Dalhousie University) in Atlantic Canada. He researches and writes about the cinemas of Japan and Tunisia, two countries in which he used to live, work and study.