Queer Japan – Film Review

The world knows Japan for a number of iconic things: anime, comics, geisha, gaming nerds, Harajuku fashions, first-class technology, and stoic business people. However, queer culture is not usually what comes first to mind. In this documentary produced by Hiromi Iida and directed by Graham Kolbeins, we have a chance to tour through this incredible country and learn about its dazzling history of liberation and community. Any LGBTIQA+ travellers be put on notice: Japan is worth the discovery, just beneath its poised tradition surface lies a thriving, enigmatic habitat.

Queer Japan introduces us to a cast of colourful characters, powerful voices in the still relatively young movement of queer people in Japan becoming steadily more visible. The film takes us from person to person across different Japanese cities in what almost feels like an in-depth tourism campaign for global community – and it is super effective! So much is navigated; from the work of HIV activists past and present, to the erotic underbellies of club nights, to campaign imperatives from Japan’s first transgender politician Tomoya Hosoda, to how lateral violence is dealt with in racist conflict, accessibility for queer people in the deaf community, and the challenges for sex workers in an extremely private culture.

Beyond its narrative strengths, Queer Japan is mastercraft in connecting human connection with tantalising visuals. Art forms including butoh dance, manga, cosplay, zines, drag, burlesque and rock music are all showcased, making this documentary a goldmine for intrigue, inspiration, and perspective. The documentary is subtitled thanks to a massive effort by a team of over 15 interpreters and translators, and the sentiments of these people are in themselves so evocative: ‘but there flows in my veins the blood of a faggot’, ‘I think there’s meaning in going astray’, ‘I want to be the noise’.

This is still a community engaged in battle, who think of one another as ‘comrades’, and as ‘weapons’, seeking to subvert being seen as ‘minorities’, ‘sick’, ‘deviant, ‘unproductive’, ‘low priority’, as their political opponents use their platforms to accuse. Beyond the subtitles, the film does extra service to pick up on key terms, explain their origins and pertinent meanings between Japanese and English – a fascinating inclusion that reveals how much in Japan that is linguistically queer is directly correlated to Western understanding and the English language.

There is so much depth in Queer Japan, and yet it is all handled with such levity, thanks in large part to the spirited cast, the map that moves between erotic, heartfelt, tragic, comic, existential and emotional enough to bring this reviewer to tears. Geotic’s score of over 30 tracks also does a mammoth task of keeping up and signalling all these changes of location, voice, mood and message.

A highlight of the film would absolutely the musical interlude by rock band HIV who perform exclusively about sexually transmitted infections in their song “Zero Discrimination”, as well as the beautiful reflection that there is nothing normal about hating and hurting one another, and that homophobia, transphobia, racism, ableism, and abuse should be considered far more queer than LGBTIQA+ people have ever been.

Queer Japan is wonderfully polished, right on the cutting edge, full of heart and blood, and perhaps most fantastically – was crowdfunded, which is a great message for filmgoers to see how they can be part of the making of stories like this one.

The film contains graphic sexualised content and discussions about gender politics that might be harmful to Western gender diverse communities.

Queer Japan is part of the 2020 Melbourne Queer Film Festival.
For ticketing and more information, visit: https://mqff.com.au

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