A go-go dancer captured in the documentary, Queer Japan
A go-go dancer captured in the documentary, Queer Japan

While we continue to dream about escaping to far-flung climes, a new documentary coming to streaming services next week brings Japan to you.

Queer Japan is an acclaimed documentary by Los Angeles-based, Canadian filmmaker Graham Kolbeins. It has already played at international LGBTQ film festivals around the world, with the Hollywood Reporter calling it, “an engagingly colorful panorama.”

On December 11, it will become available to viewers in the US and Canada via Theatrical At Home and on Digital HD (including Apple TV, Prime Video and Google Play).

Nogi Sumiko, Atsushi Matsuda, Hiroshi Hasegawa, Gengoroh Tagame, Akira the Hustler, and Tomato Hatakeno
L-R: Nogi Sumiko, Atsushi Matsuda, Hiroshi Hasegawa, Gengoroh Tagame, Akira the Hustler, and Tomato Hatakeno (Photo: Queer Japan)

Kolbeins and his producers spent five years making the documentary and interviewed over 100 people. They wanted to capture an authentic cross-section of Japan’s LGBTQ community, from erotic manga artist Gengoroh Tagame to HIV+ advocate Hiroshi Hasegawa, drag queen Vivienne Sato to trans author Tomato Hatakeno, crisscrossing the nation from Osaka to Okinawa.

Related: Gay Tokyo

Drag performer Vivienne Sato
Drag performer Vivienne Sato (Photo: Queer Japan)

The film features local gay bars and those who work in them, Pride parades and kink-positive parties, and shines a light on Tokyo’s gay neighborhood, Shinjuku Ni-chome.

“There is no singular ‘queer Japan,’ because queer people are not a monolith,” says Kolbeins in a press statement. “This film merely offers a patchwork of personal experiences told by a few dozen artists, activists, community leaders, and everyday people living in Japan today. It is my deepest hope that our approach does justice to the subjects and communities we’re depicting.”

A dancer at Club Explosion, Osaka, featured in Queer Japan
A dancer at Club Explosion, Osaka, featured in Queer Japan

Kolbeins says he has long had an admiration for Japanese, erotic manga art. This led him to make a short documentary in 2014 called The House of Gay Art, about a curator who stored an archive of erotic work in his Tokyo apartment.

Related: Gay couple’s hotel photo shoot prompts praise and criticism in Singapore

It proved successful at film festivals. Kolbeins [pictured below, front row left] says it impressed upon him, “the need and audience thirst for more cinematic representation of queer culture from Japan.”

Kolbeins worked in tandem with co-writer Anne Ishii and producer, Hiromi Iida.

“As a white cis male director aware of the long history of American colonization in Japan, it was especially important for me to remove myself from the frame as much as possible and avoid imposing any preconceived notions,” says Kolbeins. “I saw my role as a listener and an observer, a cheerleader for a community that deserves to be celebrated.”

Kolbeins tells GayCities he first visited Japan in 2012, along with Queer Japan co-writer and long-time collaborator Anne Ishii, to meet with Manga artists.

“I didn’t have much of a sense of what the LGBTQ+ scene would look like, but I was delighted to glimpse the sheer scope of Tokyo’s gayborhood, Shinjuku Ni-Chome, which has close to 300 bars servicing the queer community.”

Tokyo Rainbow Pride
Tokyo Rainbow Pride (Photo: Queer Japan)

Like everyone else, Kolbeins is looking forward to being able to travel and reconnecting with his Japanese friends again. He has recommendations for anyone who’s not been before.

“Personally, I can’t wait to return to Osaka and dance at Club Explosion, a club full of lasers, smoke, fog machines, go-go boys, and great drag shows on the weekend! Plus, Universal Studios Osaka just announced the new Nintendo World, set to open in February 2021 with a real life Mario Kart ride. That’s my post-COVID dream vacation!

“For visitors looking to enjoy Tokyo’s gay nightlife in Shinjuku Ni-chome, I recommend starting with a visit to AiiRo Cafe, which has a street-facing patio smack dab in the middle of the neighborhood. It’s a friendly and casual spot where foreign tourists, expatriates, and Ni-chome regulars congregate early for happy hour drinks.

Contemporary artist, bartender and activist, Akira The Hustler
Contemporary artist, bartender and activist, Akira The Hustler (Photo: Queer Japan)

“Some other favorite spots in the area include Alamas Cafe, Tac’s Knot, drag bar CAMPY!, and Eagle Tokyo Blue, a basement bear bar with exotic fish tanks and great gachimuchi merchandise. Some of Ni-chome’s smaller bars, which may only have 4-6 seats, do not cater to non-Japanese speakers, so please be aware and respectful when visiting.

“Finally, I’d be remiss not to mention one of my favorite queer events in Tokyo, the monthly hentai party Department H,” says Kolbeins.

Drag queen Margarette at Department H
Drag queen Margarette at Department H (Photo: Queer Japan)

Queer Japan producer and drag mega-fan Hiromi Iida took me to Department H on our first night of filming, and it quickly became a major focus of our film. Held in a huge event space with a stage and runway, Department H is an all-night extravaganza of delightful deviance where drag queens and kinky people of all stripes strut, pose, and serve some incredibly bold looks.”

Watch the trailer for Queer Japan below.