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‘Queer Japan’ Film Review: Deliriously Scattered Film Embraces the LGBTQ Universe

At its best, Graham Kolbeins’ film manages to be both kinetic and lyrical, hitting you with a barrage of day-glo imagery while finding lovely moments in art and dance


As the title suggests, the documentary “Queer Japan” is big and broad, not focused. A vigorous smorgasbord of sexual orientations and gender identities, Graham Kolbeins’ feature encompasses enough varieties of L, G, B, T and Q to leave you exhausted, and does so with energy, style and open-hearted appreciation.

“Right now in Japan, we’re in the middle of an LGBT boom,” says a voice over an opening shot of Tokyo’s Rainbow parade, followed by another voice talking about the importance of becoming visible but “not generating any friction with the majority.” The film celebrates the boom, but its characters aren’t too concerned about the friction; with a couple of exceptions, they’re out and proud, with any days they might have spent in the closet well behind them.

Those opening remarks, by the way, are as close as you’ll get to an overview in “Queer Japan.” The film is deliberately and at times deliriously scattershot, jumping from one subject to another and rarely slowing down to draw connections or make larger points.

Then again, maybe that is the larger point: that, to borrow a phrase from LGBTQ icon Walt Whitman, the queer universe in Japan is large and it contains multitudes, so why not embrace the whole thing rather than trying to connect all the dots?

As it zips from a drag queen to a gay erotic artist to a transgender activist to the manager of a lesbian bar, the film’s connective tissue is stylistic. At his best, Kolbeins manages to be both kinetic and lyrical, hitting you with a barrage of day-glo imagery but at the same time finding lovely moments in art and especially dance. This is particularly true of a bracing three-minute pre-credits sequence that sets the tone so nicely that you miss its crazy rhythms when the film grows more conventional.

Of course, conventional is a relative term in “Queer Japan.” For the most part, its subjects want to be noticed and are proudly transgressive: “If I left the house and no one stared, no one complained, I’d feel a little bit sad,” says drag queen Vivienne Sato early in the film.

Like everyone who appears on camera, Sato is asked about her sexual orientation and gender identity; her answer is, “There are all kinds of words, but it’s not something that can be so neatly tied up in words.” And that seems to be a running theme throughout the film, that labels are way too cut-and-dried when it comes to human sexuality.

So the film spends time at a women-only bar, then a club that caters to transgender men; it visits an artist who uses rubber as a second skin, then a lesbian schoolteacher whose partner was mercilessly bullied in school. Kolbeins sets the tone with frequent slow-motion sequences and with a relentless sense of theater, which helps invigorate the interview sequences that are to some degree fairly conventional. (Well, except maybe for Osaka drag queen Simone Fukayaki, who’s interviewed sitting in front of four men in black speedos fondling themselves and each other.)

As the film goes on, it moves more into societal issues, discussing the Japanese law allowing legal gender changes only in cases where sexual organs have been removed, dropping in on gay community centers and talking about AIDS and racism before ending at a Tokyo pride parade at which Caroline Kennedy spoke. But while these segments speak to the struggle that the film’s subjects have gone through in a conservative society, they don’t last long before the movie is off to somewhere else and somebody else.

The scattered nature of the film can get tiring, but the film is a visual treat – and if the backstories are frustratingly skimpy at times, Kolbeins is in search of acceptance, not explanation. That makes the film something of a freewheeling, kaleidoscopic delight, albeit one that is always aware of the struggles its subjects have endured.

Toward the end, Don-chan, a gay man at the parade, runs through a long list of the sexual practices he enjoys, and then grins and sums up the movie by using the Japanese word for “transformation,” which has also come to be used for “perversion.” “Everyone’s hentai,” he says, “so everyone’s OK.”