This time of year, we in the film critic biz are normally drowning in screeners, and in this pandemic year that’s truer than ever. Not that I’m complaining—even in a normal year, this gives me a chance to catch up with films that never played in St. Louis, or which came and went before I got to see them. Notably, many of those that never opened here are of the long-tail variety that isn’t for everyone, but which I would be truly sorry to have missed. On the down side, it means watching a whole lot of films in a short amount of time—sort of like holding a film festival in your living room—and the inevitable viewing fatigue means that films can start blending into one another.
In that context, it takes a lot for a film to really pop. Such a film is Queer Japan, a documentary that explores the variety of contemporary GLBTQ life in modern Japan. Director Graham Kolbeins, who is also credited as co-writer (with Anne Ishii), co-producer (with Hiromi Iida and Anne Ishii) and co-cinematographer (with John Roney), spent five years working on this film, and with Iida and Ishii conducted over 100 interviews. Given that background, it’s all that more impressive that Queer Japan embodies a delightful sense of spontaneity, as if it were simply occurring before your eyes rather than being the result of years of dedicated labor. It honors the complexity of queer life—which is of course every bit as diverse as straight life, if not more so—by presenting a well-chosen variety of subjects in their splendid individuality, without trying to summarize their experiences or lessen the specificity of each person.
There’s a whole lot of fabulousness on display in Queer Japan, and not all of it involves costumes or art. Aya Kamikawa is the first openly transgender person to seek elective office in Japan (she was elected to the Setagaya (Tokyo) ward assembly in 2003). Hiroshi Hasegawa is a community leader and advocate for HIV+ people. Akira the Hustler is an artist, bartender, and activist who took on anti-Korean hate groups. Atsushi Matsuda is a butoh dancer who got his start as the drag performer Cherry Vanilla. Vivienne Sato is a drag queen, artist, and film critic who says she “wants to be the noise.” Gengoroh Tagame founded the magazine G-men, and publishes both BDSM manga and the family-friendly manga My Brother’s Husband. These individuals and the others who appear in Queer Japan come off as pleasant and interesting people that you would like to spend time with—and this documentary allows each subject’s personality to come through to the point that you feel almost like you have met them in person.
Kolbeins has a strong visual sense, and Queer Japan is full of beautiful sequences, celebrating both the beauty of nature (an early shot of cherry blossoms is stunning) and the creative works of many of the people interviewed. This emphasis on visuals matches the way that many of the subjects featured perform their sexual and gender identities in creative ways. Individual shots are also well-composed, from the framing of the subject to the way Japanese and English text is placed in the frame. | Sarah Boslaugh
Queer Japan is available in the United States and Canada beginning Dec. 11 through Theatrical At Home and a number of online streaming services, including Apple TV, Prime Video and Google Play.