Queer Japan is a revelatory documentary from director Graham Kolbeins that peels back the orderly Japanese patina to reveal a vibrant social ecosystem fighting for equality. Nearly impenetrable at first pass, Kolbeins definitive film utilizes over 100 interviews reportedly shot over five years and bounces across different Japanese localities to encompass the diverse panorama that is the Queer community in modern-day Japan. Simple western terms like Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, or Transgender are compared against the history of Japanese civilization to examine where things came from and where they are headed, resulting in something comprehensive and entirely satisfying.
The doc starts by introducing us to the Japanese Queer community icons of today and their take on the current state of affairs. Included are Butoh performer Atsushi Matsuda, transgender activist and author Tomato Hatakeno, HIV+ activist Hiroshi Hasegawa, drag queen Vivienne Sato, erotic manga artist Gengoroh Tagame, multimedia artist Nogi Sumiko, and activist Akira the Hustler, among others. All are fighting a culture shackled by order and tradition while asking for equality. This is a difficult fight with politicians like LDP Diet Member Mio Sugita calling LGBT+ couples “Unproductive” and stringent laws that demand clear cut gender definitions and roles.
In one beautifully assembled passage, Sugita states during a television interview that using tax dollars to educate youth on LGBTQIA+ themes in school was unnecessary despite the fact that the suicide rate among queer youth was six times higher than their heteronormative peers. Next, we are introduced to Chika Toyoda and her American girlfriend, Liz. Toyoda explains how growing up in Japan as one who identifies as a lesbian was fraught with peril, self-loathing, and bullying. “Somehow, I got through in one piece. But a lot of LGBT kids are broken by it.”
“…peels back the orderly Japanese patina to reveal a vibrant social ecosystem fighting for equality.”
As Kolbeins darts around the queer hotspots in Osaka, Okinawa, and Tokyo, among other destinations, we see a country at a crossroads. We are introduced to a diverse community that defies clear-cut definition emerging from the shadows in a nation with a rigid love affair with pristine order and tradition. Still heavily influenced by the Meiji Era, which brought Christian values to the country, Japan is slowly rediscovering its sexual and gender fluidity history. Yet each victory is hard-won.
Not any one thing, Queer Japan goes to great lengths in sharing the panoply of definitions housed in the term Queer. Kolbeins and co-writer Anne Ishii take the time to frankly examine their subjects with clarity and respect. They delve into preferences, proclivities, identities, and fetishes with the idea that knowledge and awareness equal understanding and power.
A kaleidoscopic look at a marginalized community, Queer Japan is required viewing for anyone in the community as well as their allies.
"…goes to great lengths in sharing the panoply of definitions housed in the term Queer."