Films on Japan at the 2019 HKLGFF

Queer Japan

An ambitious documentary about people who are proud to live beyond social norms in contemporary Japan. Community is a big focus––otherwise, Graham Kolbeins, the film’s director, wouldn’t have been able to make the film without creating a network of contacts and cold calling people: or so he told us at a Q&A with him at Broadway Cinematheque last week after the film screened in at the HKLGFF.

Civil partnership recognition is spreading across dozens of cities and municipalities across Japan, and mainstream book and comic publishers are starting to market LGBTQ+ authors and themes (actually, mostly cis-gendered gay male authors for now, but hopefully that will change). So what can Queer Japan offer in this media space? A lot, actually. I learned about Grammy Tokyo and thought about the language dynamics that a transgender man would face, and about Aya Kamikawa on how no one from the Liberal Democratic Party cared about her until she won a seat in the Setagaya Ward Council in 2003. (She has since been re-elected four more times.) I recognized Tac’s Knot, the cocktail bar in Shinjuku Ni-chome which hosts Yo Katami’s Loneliness Books on Wednesdays. I saw Leslie Kee photograph his 1000th interviewee for the Out in Japan project. I definitely appreciated the large amount of transgender representation on screen. Also, all the interviewees knew each other, or at least grew to know each other. That’s community.

I missed Tokyo Rainbow Pride when I was in Tokyo in 2016, but the film was there. It was the fifth time that the parade was happening. The Embassy of Israel was giving out food, an Android mascot from the Google booth waddled around with a rainbow cape, and Caroline Kennedy was on stage expressing her satisfaction at the large amount of American companies there. But the film turned its attention to an anonymous interviewee holding placards on the sidelines. They hated how commercialized the parade had become. Pride, they said, was about individuals, not corporate social responsibility. Was this the inevitable trajectory of all societies that seemingly grow to embrace public displays of queerness?

At the post-screening Q&A, I asked Mr. Kolbeins about his choice to juxtapose the parade with these protestors. It was a conscious choice to include voices from both sides, he said. One had to hold these organizations accountable. So while ANA extends mileage scheme benefits to same-sex partners, is ANA doing the same for employees with same-sex partners? Is the United States still welcome at pride events around the world while its Education Secretary launches unprecedented attacks on transgender students? (These are my examples, by the way.)

Update on 3 October 2019Variety has an insightful review of this film published earlier this summer.

Athlete (アスリート ~俺が彼に溺れた日々~)

I didn’t watch this film because it was sold out very early on, but here’s the synopsis from the film festival website:

Kohei is a handsome and masculine former athlete, with a regular family life. He is unhappy but doesn’t know what it is that’s bothering him – until the day his wife leaves him. He escapes with alcohol and finds himself in Tokyo’s gay district. In a drunken haze, Kohei meets Yutaka, a beautiful twink who makes a living from live sex webcams with men. Yutaka takes Kohei home and an unlikely friendship begins when they somehow find comfort in each other’s company. An urban love story set in the bright lights of Tokyo, Athlete paints a beautiful portrait of the loneliness in modern city life.