Queer Japan


Totally fabulous, Japanese-style.

(2019) Documentary (Altered Innocence) Hiroshi Hasegawa, Tornato Hatakeno, Leslie Kee, Atsushi Matsuda, Junko Mitsuhashi, Saeborg, Vivienne Saro, Fumino Sugiyama, Nogi Sumiko, Gengoroh Tagame, Toh Ogura, Fuyumi Yamamoto, Chiga Ogawa, Caroline Kennedy. Directed by Graham Kolbeins

 

The United States has undergone a radical transformation in its attitudes towards the LGBTQ community. Once actively hostile towards them (and that hasn’t completely gone away), the country in general has grown more tolerant, believing that same-sex marriages should be legal (and for now, they are) and that society in general should move in the direction of acceptance.

Japanese culture has long had gay and lesbian elements to it, but what is LGBTQ culture like at this moment? Vancouver-based queer documentarian Kolbeins attempts to provide a snapshot and in many ways, it’s like watching a ten hour documentary series crammed into an hour and a half. With cleverly designed graphics and a neon-dominated opening credit sequence that lets you know that you’re about to be dazzled, the movie tends to focus on artists and nightlife impresarios.

This is much like presenting a film on Queer America and focusing primarily on the drag queens of San Francisco, Las Vegas and New York and disregarding the gay community elsewhere, most of whom don’t dress up in outrageous outfits to look fabulous or, in many cases, to be shocking. In other words, we don’t get to see ordinary gay men and lesbians and transgenders trying to live their lives, escept in a few notable sequences.

We see some of the activism going on in Japan as those involved struggle to get Japan to put aside gender definitions and let people live essentially as they want to. Noted manga artist Gengoroh Tagame, who has written many manga (Japanese comics) with hyper-masculine gay characters as well as the popular family comic My Brother’s Husband, bristles at being asked “Why do you like having sex with men,” but also at LGBTQ community members asking him “Why are you into BDSM?” which he looks at as the same type of ignorance. He’s not wrong.

Some of the individual stories are fascinating, like that of performance artist Saeborg who constructs a gigantic latex pig that gives “birth” to human piglets who immediately swarm at the latex teats. She talks about how wearing rubber allowed her to feel truly free and to be the person she wanted to be. There’s lso the deaf gay couple who have to invent their own sign language symbols to communicate in a court of law the concepts they’re trying to get across. Or the anti-gay politician who laughs out loud when she hears that gay teens are more than six times as likely to commit suicide as straight kids the same age. One would hope that would be a career ender if an American politician did something similar.

The emphasis on the more flamboyant and extroverted members of the community while it makes for a more cinematic film also tends to ignore those who are quieter and less immediately identifiable as LGBTQ, and that is to ignore that change in this country largely came through the efforts of that segment of the community – although the outgoing and outrageous fun-lovers certainly contributed a great deal. I do like that this is a look into a different kind of gay culture – Japanese pop culture is kind of over-the-top to begin with and throw a heaping helping of fabulous on top of that and you really have a potent, frothy brew. One can’t deny that this is informative, although by the end of the film one begins to feel a bit punchy – there’s an awful lot thrown at you all at once and it’s forgivable if you feel a sense of overload after absorbing all of it. This is one feature length movie that perhaps might have been better served as a ten hour series, but that doesn’t mean that the film isn’t a worthwhile watch, particularly for those seeing what LGBTQ activism looks like in Japan.

REASONS TO SEE: There’s a little bit of activism amongst the frivolity. An interesting view into a fairly taboo subject in Japan.
REASONS TO AVOID: Spends perhaps too much time on the more visually outrageous.
FAMILY VALUES: The subject matter is on the adult side.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Over 100 people were interviewed over a four year interval for the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/12/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Paris is Burning
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Gun and a Hotel Bible

Church & State


Utah: democracy or theocracy?

(2018) Documentary (Blue Fox/Breaking Glass) Mark Lawrence, Peggy Tomsic, Steve Urquhart, Jim Magleby, Jennifer Dobner, Derek Kitchen, Moudi Sbeity, Kody Partridge, Laura Wood, Bob Evans, David Knowlton, Kate Call, Kate Kendell, Missy Larsson. Directed by Holly Tuckett and Kendall Wilcox

 

In 2015, same-sex marriage was made legal throughout the United States, ending a fight which had been escalating over the past…well, going back to the Stonewall Riots. It marked a sea change in American attitudes towards its LGBTQ citizens as popular support for the cause grew.

One of the first salvos fired in the battle for marriage equality took place in Utah. Amendment 3, which had been approved by 66% of the predominantly Mormon voters and approved by the Church of Latter-Day Saints itself (albeit only tacitly). Mark Lawrence, a middle-aged gay man who had moved to Utah from San Francisco to care for his ailing father, had always regretted not marching for AIDS when he lived in the Bay Area in the 80s. He felt moved to do something about what he considered a morally objectionable law – and thought that if he sued the State of Utah, he would have a reasonable chance of winning on constitutional law grounds.

But nobody wanted to help him do it. Inexperienced in activism and fundraising, he founded the group Restore Our Humanity for the purpose of fundraising for the lawsuit, and set out to find someone to help set it up. He was met by stony resistance from all of the national organizations he contacted; most felt that in a state as red as Utah there was absolutely no chance they could get the law overturned. At last, he found a small law firm who was willing to take on the case, and a lawyer named Peggy Tomsic who was willing to take it on – which meant not only taking on the State of Utah but by extension, the Church of Latter-Day Saints as well (the film takes the stance that the Mormons largely control the state from a political angle – many of the state legislators are Mormons, so they do have a case).

It would turn out to be one of the first cases to be tried in a federal court on the subject of same-sex marriage and the State of Utah, feeling that they not only had the will of the people behind them but also the full force of the law, were unprepared when the judge ruled in favor of the plaintiffs; they were so confident in their chances that they did not have a Stay of implementation writ ready to go on, which is common practice in suits like this. Seventeen days would go by with hundreds of same-sex couples receiving marriage licenses before a stay was finally filed.

But the fight was only beginning. There was an appeal to be filed and there would be in-fighting between the legal team, the plaintiffs (which couldn’t be Lawrence since he wasn’t in a relationship at the time) and Lawrence, who eventually dissolved the organization he founded to fight Amendment 3 and said disconsolately afterwards “If I had to do it all again? I probably wouldn’t have.”

The filmmakers tell the story of the lawsuit pretty well. There is a good deal of archival footage, promotional footage from the Church of Latter-Day Saints (they declined all interview requests they received from the filmmakers) and talking head interviews. Some of the footage is chilling, such as the Mormon elder who gives his approval to someone beating up a gay man, or the repeated insistence that they have nothing against gay people and that it’s not personal, but…y’all are perverts and you need to get out of Salt Lake, pretty much.

This is very much an underdog story and it is viscerally pleasing from that point of view. Lawrence is an interesting enough subject but he can be abrasive and the filmmakers shift their focus from him to lawyer Peggy Tomsic who as a lesbian definitely had skin in the game; she had a long-time partner and the two of them were caring for a small boy that they couldn’t legally adopt because of their marital status (or lack thereof) and were well-aware that he could be snatched away from them at any moment. Her story really shows the casual cruelty, the true evil, of the stance that those proponents of the gay marriage ban took. As Tomsic says, as much as they claim it is about the welfare of the children, at the end of the day it is not because keeping kids out of a stable home with two parents benefits nobody.

The story is a fascinating one, but it is a very locally-oriented one and the documentaries that focused on the fight for marital equality on a national level will probably hold more interest. However, for those looking to dive deeper on how that came to happen against what some thought were nearly insurmountable odds, could find this worth a look.

REASONS TO SEE: Concise storytelling.
REASONS TO AVOID: Territory covered on the national level more effectively.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was a Special Jury Award winner at the 2018 American Documentary Film Festival.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV, Hoopla, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/22/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Case Against 8
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Happy Prince