“Queer Japan,” a documentary about the LGBTQ community as it exists today in Tokyo and several smaller (but still major) Japanese cities, is a movie that makes you realize that liberation movements have become more global, in spirit and in fact, than anyone might have expected. The director, Graham Kolbeins (who also co-shot and edited the film), introduces us to a panoply of Japanese citizens who wear the diversity of their identities with a casual hard-won fierceness, and who give off a one-world cosmopolitan vibe that’s inspiring — and, for those of us in the U.S., gratifyingly familiar.
Japan has an annual Pride parade, modeled on the one in New York (we see Caroline Kennedy, the U.S. ambassador to Japan from 2013 to 2017, showing up to say, “It’s great to see so many American companies here!”). It has a bold and vibrant trans community, and the country is making strides toward the establishment of gay marriage as a legal right. If there is not, as yet, a Japanese version of “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” it would seem to be on the horizon. But given the intense aura of taboo that still surrounds much of gay and trans life in Japan, the most eye-opening aspect of “Queer Japan” is how beautifully outspoken everyone is.
The movie opens with thumbnail sketches of its subjects, and there are a great many of them, from Atsushi Matsuda, a butoh dancer who questions the need to classify everyone (“Can’t we just be okay with ‘hentai’?” he says with a laugh), to Tomato Hatakeno, a trans activist who writes video-game strategy books, to Toh Ogura, a.k.a. Margarette, a gay man who’s the MC of Department H, a fashion-runway party for the latex-and-rubber set, to Gengoroh Tagame, a gay erotic artist whose unapologetically sexy and explicit body-fetish drawings have made him a kind of Tom of Tokyo, to Fuyumi Yamamoto, a deaf lesbian who went to court with her fiancé, who was petitioning to change his legal status from female to male, and had to pioneer new sign-language characters simply to communicate to the judge some of the things they were talking about.
The people we meet in “Queer Japan” represent a powerful cross-section of LGBTQ life, and they make a vivid case for how wrong it is to assume that members of that community are all in the same box, or five boxes, or 50 boxes. The movie is a cry for the absolute freedom of identity, one that I can imagine many non-LGBTQ people deeply relating to, since the demands for tolerance that are made here extend to the very essence of being and desire. At one point, Gengoroh Tagame, who has become (among other things) a public celebrity for the BDSM community, explains that he’s always found it offensive when someone asks, “Why are you gay?” But then he adds that within the LGBTQ community itself, he is sometimes asked, “Why are you into BDSM?” Which amounts to the same prejudice. The message of the movie isn’t merely “tolerance.” It’s more demanding and exacting: Each and every one of us — gay and straight, trans and cisgender, wild and traditional, whatever — are who we are. The movie is a plea not simply for respect but for a recognition of the existential reality of each of our identities.
Yet it’s a plea that’s more wide than deep. There are so many representative figures in “Queer Japan” that I wish we got to know a few of them a little more, which would probably have meant getting to know a few less of them. The film is very detailed about what is, by necessity (as in: survival), the sometimes clannish nature of queer existence. It follows, for instance, how Chiga Ogawa started a party event that leaned toward lesbians called Gold Finger, but in the process wound up marginalizing FTM (female-to-male) trans people. She didn’t want to let them into Gold Finger because, as she put it, they no longer identified as women. Yet she admits all of this with chagrin, realizing that it can’t be right. And so Ogawa came up with a new party event: Boyish Friend.
That’s a moving and redemptive story, but even so, “Queer Japan” often feels like an extended public-service announcement. The reason for that, I think, is that Graham Kolbeins, as a filmmaker, adopts a view that’s shrewdly “post-psychological,” treating each subject as a neutral individual, no more and no less, but what he leaves out is much of the historical and emotional and erotic drama that is a part of the very fiber of these issues. The legacy of homosexual life in Japan comes with its own traditions and iconic figures. I wish that “Queer Japan” had delved more into historical matters of fashion and androgyny, or into the life of someone like Yukio Mishima. It’s a very present-tense movie, but how did the movements on display evolve? Kolbeins would have done well to show us. Instead, he presents a snapshot of a revolution in midair, leaping to find a form for how to remake the future.