'Queer Eye: We're in Japan!': TV Review

Kelli Falls/Netflix
Moving and sincere, despite a few intercultural bumps.
11/1/2019

In the newest season of Netflix's hit makeover series, the Fab Five venture to Japan to revitalize the lives of some troubled folks.

The recipe for Queer Eye is simple: If you hire the right quintet of magnetic, talented and endearing content experts to host your makeover show, then it won't matter how successful or self-actualized the individual viewer is. They, too, will want to be Queer Eyed just the same.

"Transform me!" I have been known to shout at the TV after watching grooming liaison Jonathan van Ness unveil a life-changing haircut or while witnessing interior designer Bobby Berk show off a gorgeous home refurbishment. When original juggernaut Queer Eye for the Straight Guy debuted in 2003, it became one of the first mainstream successes to help steer queer visibility toward joy and away from tragedy. (Remember that at the time, the idea of hetero men actually caring about their appearance was so radical the term "metrosexual" was soon invented for them.) Netflix's 2018 Queer Eye reboot has evolved the brand from beyond the heteronormative fantasy of remaking a woman's hopeless dud into a confident stud, instead capitalizing on the wellness movement to home in on the illusion of reshaping you, the viewer. "Heal ME."

Queer Eye, now nearly 40 episodes into five micro seasons, has been shrewd enough to make the political personal. The series made waves last year when the Fab Five opened up frank, if stilted, conversations with their charges about race, gender, police brutality and growing up in conservative religious communities. Going into the four-episode special season Queer Eye: We're in Japan!, I was apprehensive about the possibility that this group of American and British makeover guides would heedlessly storm into this new (and often fetishized) cultural environment to revamp participants according to their own culturally whittled ideas of personal enhancement. I was waiting for the ick factor.

To the credit of the show's producers, however, these inevitable moments of appropriation/whitesplaining — nearly impossible to avoid when self-help gurus travel to a new country to tell people how to improve their lives — stand out less than the moments of genuine care and connection. To temper the explosivity of intercultural minefields, this season the Fab Five are sometimes joined by chirpy American-Japanese model Kiko Mizuhara to help introduce the hosts (and the audience) to Japan during interludes from the makeover storylines. This includes Kiko taking the hosts to famous Tokyo hot spots, such as a gay bar adored by Freddie Mercury, and elucidating the culturally specific difficulties the participants face.  

Each of the vulnerable charges has a history of bullying and are seen by their families (or society at large) as gender misfits: a harried older woman who runs a hospice out of her own home and has no time for grooming; an out young gay man who doesn't feel welcome in his home country; a self-effacing young manga artist who believes she's too unattractive to care for herself; and a nerdy radio host who has become emotionally and sexually withdrawn in his marriage. Thanks to an offscreen translator and the magic of seamless editing, the hosts get to know their charges and work to uplift them from the inside out. If you've teared up before at this show, then some moments here might actually make you weep.

The season touches upon a lot of sticky topics straight out of reports in American media about life in Japan, from emotional repression to declining sex/birth rates to the importance of slender femininity for women. It's clear these clients were selected because they represent an American vision of Japanese social issues, but that doesn't make their struggles and transformations any less moving. That said, I could probably do without food expert Antoni Porowski explaining yakitori to one of his Japanese clients, or the Fab Five peppering the season with "oishi"s and "kawaii"s in a way that comes across as cultural dress-up. They also presumptively stress the idea of American individualism to these hurting folks: “You have to live for yourself,” one host implores his charge. 

While I sometimes glaze over at the show's repetitious formula — this franchise is made for background TV, a valid and important viewing experience like any other —  Queer Eye has ultimately thrived due to its emphasis on extraordinary healing through self-care. As someone who actually can attest to the life-changing magic of tidying up your house, I am the first person to admit that something as mundane as buying a cute basket to throw all your bedroom junk in (so the junk is not on the floor anymore and can no longer grump out your spouse) does have the power to relieve a psychological pressure valve. Call it zealotry of the self-help TV convert, or whatever.

Yes, there are arguments to be made here about queer minstrelsy, conspicuous consumerism, the scripted nature of reality TV and the trope of the queer fairy godparent who's going to magically improve your life. But the mission is so humane, I practically demand they jerk these tears right out of my face.

Cast: Jonathan Van Ness, Tan France, Bobby Berk, Karamo Brown, Antoni Porowski
Creator: David Collins
Premieres: Friday (Netflix)