There is nothing, simply nothing, to make you feel that you’ve led a sexually-sheltered life, that your understanding of the modern fluid, on-the-spectrum nature of sexuality is superficial at best, than “Queer Japan.”
One might have guessed that the culture that pretty much invented pornography, that perfected fetishes from schoolgirl uniforms to tentacles, where pornographic comic books have achieved the level of high art, would snap your head back and make your mouth drop when catching a glimpse of the gay life in the Land of the Rising Sun.
Manga and drag fashion shows where the rubber literally meets the road, (“It’s my second skin,” one aficionado explains.), a popular lesbian “Gold Finger” party (wait for it), debates by the lesbian club owner who runs such parties about allowing “men who used to be women” admission, elaborate stage shows where an inflatable pig gives “birth” to rubber-clad “piglets,” kinky cosplayers creating sexy “pet” costumes — topped with a dog or cat head “mask” because they want to be “coddled,” fondled and adored like pets, Japan has it all. Or has at least tried it out.
Queer cinema auteur Graham Kolbeins (“Th House of Gay Art,” “Rad Queers”) takes a tour of “Queer Japan” and delivers a lurid, over-saturated blast of neon-colored eye candy, a film shot like a fashion video, capturing this oppressed but out-there minority in a country where “conformity” has always counted, even if they’ve always acknowledged their cultural kinkiness.
Kolbeins, grabbing more than 100 interviews for the film, samples a wide cross-section of Japanese LGBT culture, a wide span of ages, sexual preferences and sexualities, with manga artists, transgender activists, sex workers and people old enough to connect this to open-minded cultural traditions of The Edo Dynasty, which ended when America “opened” Japan in 1853 and the country became at least somewhat “Christianized.”
The film teaches us Japanese words — slurs and otherwise — for “gay.” “Hen” means “strange, queer,” “hentai” means “abnormal sexuality.” So when a big annual party, show and gala is thrown as “Dept. H.,” you know what you’re signing up for.
“We enjoy ambiguity,” one interviewee declares. Even if “we’re behind the times, compared to the rest of the world,” another offers.
Disparagement and discrimination lingers, even though Shinto and Buddhism, dominant religions, have “no problem” with “alternative” sexualities.
We see a Japanese version of Anita Bryant, testy about adding gay awareness to school curricula, jokingly dismissive of this “unproductive” (in a propagate the species sense) but increasingly visible minority.
People like her fret over the collapse of the national birth rate (Japan is aging and dying out, thanks to generations not having babies.), but literally laugh on TV at the news that gay teens commit suicide at six times the national average for that age group.
It’s little wonder that as in other countries, queer Japan has made allies with other discriminated-against “outsiders,” marching with the Zainichi (Korean immigrants and their descendants) in protest of right wing harassment.
Red light districts to clubs, runway shows to Youtube channels, an aesthetically daring “reversible identity” apartment complex, “pride” marches or stepping out into politics, “Queer Japan” as portrayed here comes off as a not-quite-hidden culture in a rush to make up for lost time, like Spain after Franco or New York after Stonewall.
It’s hard to keep track who everyone is and how they fit into all this, a bit overwhelming, as if Kolbeins and co-writer Anne Ishii edited down a TV or online series of shows into a single film (Did they?). But if you’re up for a little Total Immersion in another culture’s non-conformists, it’d be hard to top “Queer Japan.”
MPA Rating: Unrated, and “out there” in a sexual sense.
Cast: Nogi Sumiko, Saeborg, Gengoroh Tagame, Vivienne Sato, Akira the Hustler, Leslie Kee, Atsushi Matsuda, many other
Credits: Directed by Graham Kolbeins, script by Anne Ishii, Graham Kolbeins. An Altered Innocence release on Apple TV, Prime Video, etc. on Dec. 11.
Running time: 1:39