Queer Japan: The Must-See Doc Challenging Generational Stigmas

In Queer Japan, Canadian director Graham Kolbeins documents the realities of being an LGBTQIA+ person in Japan through the lens of artists, activists and trailblazers. Graham does a great job of showing representation throughout the spectrum, from Manga artist Gengoroh Tagame sharing his gay manga comics with the world, to Aya Kamikawa taking us through the tumultuous path to becoming the first transgender elected official in Japan.

Take a deep dive into kink-positive parties and hentai performances, meet the people fighting the AIDS epidemic and discover the egregious “medical” diagnoses that deem queer and transgender people as having a mental illness.

Queer Japan introduces us to the pillar personalities who are creating a safer and LGBTQIA+ inclusive Japan. Check out the trailer below, followed by an interview with director Graham Kolbeins and select cast:

Visually this documentary feels very cinematic, almost like we are being pulled into the subject’s world. What inspired you to shoot your project this way?

Graham Kolbeins: I’m attracted to documentaries that go beyond representing reality in a flat and static way and are able to transport us into the subjective realities of the people whose stories are being told. Some of the beautifully cinematic documentaries that have inspired me in their aesthetic approach and experimentation include Paris is Burning, Mala Mala, Sans Soleil, and the films of Agnès Varda.

Do you feel that the word “hentai” is evolving from being a slur to viewed as something more positive?

Atsushi Matsuda (Butoh dancer): I think the word “hentai” is still often used with a negative connotation in society. At the same time, by hiding the fact that one is hentai, I feel that there are many people who get excited and actually increase their hentai-ness. Personally, I call it “immorality moe*” In that sense, I feel that more and more people are taking their hentai-ness a little more positively. I also think the spread of the Internet is one of the factors. As the flow of information increases, it allows people to embody the hentai-ness in their heads– and in some cases with other parties in their area. I’m really interested in things that are seemingly annoying or bothersome at first glance.

By the way, in Japanese, “hentai” means a “transformation” of form, state, or ecology, in the sense of insects transitioning from larvae to adults. Whether my “queerness” becomes a butterfly or moth, in what way will I transform? As long as I live, I think this excitement will continue.

*From the Jisho Japanese Dictionary: “Moe (slang) is a Japanese slang word. It means a rarefied pseudo-love for certain fictional characters (in anime, manga, and the like) and their related embodiments.” Originating from the otaku culture, now it’s often used to describe a person with a devoted obsession of any kind. Can be used in a way not dissimilar from “stan.”

Queer Japan documentary features gay butoh dancer Atsushi Matsuda.

Atsushi Matsuda dancing with Dairakudakan.

What inspired you to begin writing a children’s manga titled My Brother’s Husband?

Gengoroh Tagame: Gay characters feature prominently in various comics, including BL Manga, but they’re mostly in romantic or erotic plots. I wanted to see manga that depicted issues outside of love and sex. For example, about coming out, or getting married; the issues that affect the way gay people interact with society, and the further issues that arise from that intercourse. I just wasn’t seeing it in Japan, so I realized I had to make it. It was around that time that a publisher happened to call upon me asking if I’d like to write an all-ages manga. That’s when I presented to them the idea of a “gay manga for straight readers.” The publisher liked the concept and we went from there.

Do you feel your books have helped parents of LGBTQ+ children become more open and understanding?

Gengoroh Tagame: Yes. I’ve received notes of gratitude from a lot of people. Among them, parents who said they read it with their children, gay children who said their families finally saw them for who they are, straight parents who gave the book to their gay children. And when it was adapted to a live-action television series I know it touched even more people.

Gengoroh Tagame at The Eagle in New York City.

There seems to be a negative stigma with transgender people being labeled as mentally ill in Japan. How do you see this film changing that perspective in Japan?

Graham Kolbeins: There seems to be a lingering perception of transgender people through the prism of mental illness, despite the fact that diagnoses like “gender identity disorder” has fallen out of favor in psychiatric discourse. I’m really glad we could highlight the work of Tomato Hatakeno, whose activism has centered on negating this perception of transgender identity as a mental disorder and helping people see that it’s actually a human rights issue.

Tomato Hatakeno.

With parties such as “Boyish Friend” and other intersectional queer events popping up, do you see the nightlife in Japan becoming more united & safer for the LGBTQ+ community regardless of identity?

Graham Kolbeins: It’s encouraging to see more inclusive spaces emerge in the LGBTQ+ community, but there’s still a lot of work to be done. Despite the progress “Boyish Friend” made by including transgender men in what had been an exclusively lesbian space, another controversy flared up last year when a transgender woman was prohibited from entering Gold Finger’s monthly “women only” party. That incident sparked a really important dialogue about trans exclusion in Japan’s queer nightlife and sparked the creation of a new inclusive queer party called “WIFE” in Shibuya. I hope that sense of understanding and unity continues to grow within the community.

Go-go dancer at Club Explosion in Osaka.

HIV awareness is a very important topic that is explored in the film through support programs such as Dista and the band HIV. What other ways can help further promote safe sex and HIV prevention in Japan?

Graham Kolbeins: We had the pleasure of joining Comunity Center akta’s Delivery Boys on their weekly distribution of condoms and pamphlets throughout Tokyo’s gay neighborhood, Shinjuku Ni-chome. It’s a district that has hundreds of bars catering to the LGBTQ+ community, and the Delivery Boys have created a network that allows them to provide resources to people in the community directly through the bars they frequent.

Queer Japan is now available in the US and Canada via Theatrical At Home and on Digital HD, including Apple TV, Prime Video and Google Play.

Interview by Gustavo Oliver.

Gustavo Oliver

Leave a Reply