From Queer Japan (2019), dir. Graham Kolbeins (all images courtesy Justin Cook PR)

“It’s not necessarily that being gay or lesbian is the problem, but it’s the family values and format that traditional Japanese are afraid of breaking,” suggests a narrator over images of two women dancing and kissing in a club, intercut with shots from a traditional heterosexual marriage ceremony. Soon after, another voice offers, “the first thing we have to do is get rid of our phobia towards ourselves.” The documentary Queer Japan exists between these two poles. By showing that being queer is just another way of expressing one’s identity and navigating romantic relationships, it celebrates the creative work, thriving nightlife, grassroot activism, and community services of the LGBTQ+ people of Japan. 

The Queer Japan Project, as it was originally called, started in 2016, when writer and director Graham Kolbeins spent five months in Japan thanks to a fellowship awarded by the Japan-US Friendship Commission. Four years and a Kickstarter campaign later, Queer Japan emerges as a helpful survey of LGBTQ+ realities across the country. Although the spotlight is consistently stolen by Ni-chōme, the buzzing gay quarter of Tokyo’s East Shinjuku ward, the film also travels to Osaka, Kyoto, and Okinawa to give voice to their queer communities, which are often overshadowed by the capital’s. It introduces us to the director of Osaka’s gay community center, a deaf queer activist, and the owner of a cozy gay bar in Okinawa, among many others.

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The film’s focus on contemporary experiences means it doesn’t linger on lessons on Japan’s queer history (though it briefly delves into how in the past, alternative sexualities and ambiguous gender expressions were more common, and hence went mostly unlabelled). From the outside, Japan is often depicted as a progressive country, especially if one looks at the flourishing homoerotic yaoi and yuri genres, but this perception is quite misleading. Japan does not recognize same-sex marriage — same-sex partnerships, which grant limited privileges, are valid only in a handful of cities. Transgender citizens who desire legal recognition of their gender identity must first undergo sterilization. 

Despite occasionally touching on such discrimination, Queer Japan is mostly a positive work. It entertains thanks to the riveting exuberance of its subjects, from drag queens to Butoh dancers, artists, mangaka, and the owner of an iconic lesbian bar in Ni-chōme. The interviews flow like smooth conversations with pals over beers. It’s a celebration of everything unapologetically hen — Japanese for strange, peculiar, eccentric, queer. In the Tokyo alternative club Department H, artist Saeborg (the name references Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto) shows off her efforts to undo her body and transcend the human form through rubbery creations, such as pig and fire costumes. Influential gay manga artist Gengoroh Tagame discusses how his hyper-masculine work is inspired by BDSM, and how he feared fan reaction when he abandoned his erotic style to make My Brother’s Husband, a gay manga series for all ages. It is also discussed how Hiroshi Hasegawa, co-founder of the gay lifestyle magazine G-Men (which often published Tagame’s work), worked to raise AIDS awareness in the ’90s, when even queer publications were loath to raise the subject.

From Queer Japan

Playful, dynamic, and informative, Queer Japan is conceived to be enjoyed by the widest audience possible. Japan-specific queer terminology is explained with pink-colored text floating around interviewees, non-intrusively helping everyone keep up. And it doesn’t forget to be critical, either. During a section on the Tokyo Rainbow Pride, subjects talk about how such events have become profitable commercial opportunities for big brands while gender-nonconforming people are still harassed on the streets. The film is a celebration, but it also passes the microphone to the understated realities of its milieu.

Queer Japan opens in virtual cinemas December 11.

Ren Scateni is a writer, curator, and programmer. They mostly write about the cinema of Japan and other East Asian countries for various publications, including MUBI Notebook, Art Review, and Sight &...