Like a big, consensual hug from a nonbinary person dressed in a sheep costume, Queer Japan is the very best kind of documentary: the kind that leaves you feeling very intimately connected to its subjects. Writer Anne Ishii and writer/director Graham Kolbeins opt not to lecture or preach, not to anchor the film on a linear timeline filled with historic milestones.
Although the film certainly includes sobering mentions of systemic oppression and ongoing injustice, the focus is squarely on giving its raucous cast of characters the space to share, which they are too often denied. And goodness do they ever share…
Oftentimes, documentaries strip a subculture down to its most homogenous elements. Queer Japan is having none of that, thanks. Instead of paint-by-numbers, it Jackson Pollocks this shit, splashing the cinematic canvas with a seemingly endless parade of colorful individuals that resist reductive labels.
This includes Gengoroh Tagame, a manga artist who is simultaneously working on an aggressively erotic gay comic and a family-friendly, near-sitcom-like graphic series. Saeborg is a nonbinary artist who discovered as a child that working with rubber costuming meant a liberation from the restriction of human bodies. Honestly, singling a few folks out to spotlight for this synopsis feels wrong. It’s the cumulative effect of the dozens of interviews that makes it feels like being at the absolute most interesting party you’ll never attend.
Actually, come to think of it, parties are a big focus too. Queer Japan drops in on the fashion runway/bar Department H, which stands for “hentai,” which does not mean what you probably think it does. The film explains that the term means “abnormal sexuality.” That begs the question of who gets to define what constitutes “normal sexuality,” with the only answer being “not Ben Shapiro.” Kolbeins and Ishii also explore Gold Finger, a women-only lesbian party that now has an event dedicated to female-to-male trans people called “Boyish Friend.”
Beyond somewhat useful but nonspecific umbrella terms like hentai and queer, what bonds this spectacularly diverse group of people and places together is a resistance to reduce their complexity based on the expectations of others. As a result, hopping between them feels a bit like meandering, as there isn’t always a direct through-line to connect the far-reaching parts of this ever-expanding community.
That’s okay. In fact, it’s more than okay. Better this than an avalanche of talking head historians, pundits, or other context-givers trying to put these wildly original shapes into square-shaped holes. Speaking of holes… The very nature of Queer Japan lends itself to frank, fearless, honest discussions and depictions of who likes to put what where. That starts off as disorienting for those of us raised under Puritanical constructs but soon becomes endearingly comfortable. Seriously, it does!
When operating at maximum warp, cinema can condense a previously unknown part of the human experience down to a quickly digestible morsel. Queer Japan is one such treat.
Grade = A-