'Queer Japan': Film Review | Outfest 2019

Queer Japan
An engagingly colorful panorama.

Graham Kolbeins' documentary celebrates Japan’s diversity of queer experience.

Piss drinking, rimming, being coerced and beaten — as one giggling Pride marcher admits in Graham Kolbeins’ mosaic of queer life in Japan, he likes it all. A cheerful spirit of open inquiry drives the documentary Queer Japan, in fact, which is tender, impressionistic rather than highly structured, and largely inexplicit — that amusingly candid vox pop notwithstanding.

The filmmaker skips between cities, from Tokyo and Osaka to Kyoto and Okinawa, checking in with half a dozen principal subjects over the course of an unhurried 100 minutes. Each represents a different aspect of the hentai life — in the Japanese sense of the word, roughly denoting unconventional sexual desires or practices.

The most famous subject in Queer Japan, which screens at Outfest after premiering at Rainbow Reel Tokyo last week, is Gengorah Tagame, one of gay erotic manga’s founding fathers. Kolbeins edited an anthology of the genre and has written a book on Tagame himself, the co-editor of 1990s magazine G-men and an artist beloved for his range of BDSM-themed illustrations featuring hirsute musclemen. The popularity of Tagame’s work is underlined when we see him at a convention in America; afterwards he goes on a pilgrimage to the Tom of Finland Foundation in Los Angeles. Kolbeins also visits Tagame and his G-men co-editor Hiroshi Hasegawa in Tokyo, where they talk about the magazine’s early days and the febrile excitement that sustained long days and nights at the office.

They recall also the first stirrings of AIDS awareness in Japan, though the film itself is far from a historical exegesis. There’s no archival footage here, and Kolbeins seems more interested in cataloging the various permutations of queer experience in the country than in presenting a timeline or advancing a thesis. Shot largely handheld on city streets by John Roney and the director himself, Queer Japan doesn’t venture outside the big metropolises into the presumably more hidebound countryside. Nor does it zoom out for an overview of the political situation in Japan, instead focusing on those affected: Aya Kamikawa, a transgender municipal official in Tokyo, speaks with moving reticence about the legal difficulties that ensue when she wants, for instance, to validate her identity.

The doc’s consistent theme is the ways in which labels categorize — and, sometimes, circumscribe — members of the LGBTQ community. Kolbeins has said he wanted to explore language’s power to construct identity, and several characters are introduced alongside a flashing graphic signposting the descriptor with which they identify. Some of these are slurs, and the film makes the uncontroversial case that Gender Identity Disorder, that now-defunct diagnosis, continues to have a residual effect on the way trans people are perceived. This might be one reason why some, such as multimedia artist Nogi Sumiko, eschew categories altogether. Sumiko routinely dresses up as a sheep without a flock, much to the delight of the local children.

That sense of individuality extends to Atsushi Matsuda, a former drag queen who realized he was better suited for traditional butoh dance. His performances, in gold body paint as well as in casual wear, are inter-spliced throughout the film by the director, serving as his own editor. A gregarious character, Matsuda is the first person we meet, performing in a public park to the accompaniment of Los Angeles musician Will Wiesenfeld’s shimmery ambient soundtrack. But he also gets close to the final word when he observes that people who find queer folk strange are, in fact, pretty strange themselves.

Director: Graham Kolbeins
Screenwriters: Anne Ishii, Graham Kolbeins
Producer: Hiromi Iida
Cinematographer: John Roney, Graham Kolbeins
Editor: Graham Kolbeins 
Music: Will Wiesenfeld
Venue: Outfest Los Angeles

100 minutes