A Conversation With The Makers Of Queer Japan

Graham Kolbeins and Anne Ishii

Graham Kolbeins and Anne Ishii have been working together for years. Together they’ve edited books like Massive: Gay Japanese Manga and The Men Who Make It and The Passion of Gengoroh Tagame and founded Massive Goods together. Ishii is the Executive Director of Asian Arts Initiative in Philadelphia,  on the Board of Directors of the Asian American Writers Workshop, and the award winning translator of works like My Brother’s Husband by Tagame. Kolbeins is a filmmaker whose work includes directing the short film The House of Gay Art and the web series Rad Queers.

Queer Japan is a documentary released at the end of 2020 which explores the work and lives of a number of individuals including the legendary artist Gengoroh Tagame, and the duo were kind enough to talk with me over zoom about how they work together, and not making an anthropological film. - Alex Dueben

You two have worked together on different projects over the years. Why a film?

Graham Kolbeins: I had been working with Anne since 2011 when we first started working on the collections we put out, The Passion of Gengoroh Tagame and Massive: Gay Erotic Manga and the Men Who Make It. We’d been collaborating on that and at the same time I was making short documentaries about various LGBT artists and activists in Los Angeles and Chicago. That was a web series I made called Rad Queers. Those two threads came together in 2014-15 when Anne and I went to Tokyo. We visited the House of Gay Art with Gengoroh Tagame, which is this amazing private archive of homoerotic Japanese art. I made a short documentary about that and it sparked the idea of trying to explore a broader and more diverse depiction of Japanese queer culture. It just made sense to do that in a longer format like a feature film. I wrote a proposal to the Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission, which is a binational cultural organization that supports artists through their creative artist exchange fellowship. I got that in 2016 and it really provided us with the resources and time to make Queer Japan.

You two are credited as, among other things, co-writers on the film. For a documentary project like this, what did that entail?

Anne Ishii: I want to quickly say, I’m really excited and honored about my writing credit, but it really was all Graham. There’s [a] narrative arc, which Graham can speak to. My role as a writer was making sure the interpretations and translations were good and getting the subjects to where you want them to end up or a notion of where you want the film to go.

Kolbeins: Our writing collaboration isn’t so much a script that was written. There were a lot of discussions when we were outlining and planning the film. During production Anne was with me for a number of interviews. Especially some of the initial interviews, she was able to build a rapport and relationship with our cast members and dig into some of the deeper conversations that you hear in the film. In post-production there were even more conversations about what’s working and what fits and how does this all come together. It was a multi-faceted creative process and it feels like an extension of the collaboration we were doing in our publications and work at Massive.

You two have worked together in different ways on different projects. I’m curious about your creative partnership and how it changes from one project to another.

Kolbeins: Our book editing projects were more doing equal amounts of labor. Some of it was divided into different areas. For instance, my Japanese language skills are intermediate at best and Anne is a brilliant translator, so she really brought to life the words of the books and these interviews in the movie in a way that I could never do in a natural way. It’s a division of labor. I feel like we decided early on that the film is something I’m directing, but Anne was really helpful and willing to consult throughout and be a big part of the background creative process. It felt more weighted towards this is a passion project I’m doing and Anne is my pillar and support system.

Ishii: You’re triggering a lot of great memories – and I hate using the word trigger because it implies something negative, but really positive memories – of our collaborations and our collaborative thinking. You know how in Pacific Rim, you need two people to run the mecha? [laughs] You need both of us to get the full story. We just work really well together. I would never attempt to do any of this alone. It would be such a horrible product. I consider myself a writer and artist, but you know when you have an idea in your head but when you start to do it, it comes out really weird? Graham has always been able to translate what I think would look good in our work with Massive and designing the books. Even at the designer-art aesthetic level, I’m so impressed with his work. I think language acuity is a known quantity but design ethos is a very unknowable quantity and in that sense, I’ve found our partnership to be really delightful. I’ll see something Graham does and it’s exactly how I saw it in my head.

Kolbeins: To add to that, I feel like I can get really stuck in my analytical brain sometimes and Anne is great at just bringing out laughter and emotions and feelings in me. I feel like we balance each other out nicely.

You were saying this film was a multi-year project. As you were starting out, what did you know you want this film to be? What did it have to include?

Kolbeins: There are so many different directions that the film could have gone in. One of the important things that we wanted was for it to be rooted in the contemporary moment. There’s a bit of history in the film, centuries of history that inform how we got to this day, but that’s a different story. That’s more of an anthropological discussion. In this film we wanted to just allow people to speak for themselves and talk about their experiences. That and we tried to include as many diverse and exciting people as we could in the film.

For Queer Japan you seemed interested in finding a breadth of people and expressions and backgrounds. In America we have this idea that every other culture is this unknowable monoculture and here you really tried to show individuals and individual experiences.

Kolbeins: No country is a monoculture. What’s American queer culture? Compare Los Angeles and Little Rock, Arkansas? There are so many regional variations. That’s true for Japan as well. I could have made a film about the thing we had been doing, digging into gay manga, which could have been its own film, but I wanted to show the breadth of the community and how it’s not two dimensional.

Ishii: It’s not one thing, but also, I don’t think you have to have an assumption about what it means to be queer based on our experiences. I hope and I think what is done pretty well in the film is to talk about how the stories of the queer community don’t have to begin with trauma. So many queer narratives about Japan are, nobody knows I’m out, and the faces are pixelated and anonymous. It starts with a position of this being tawdry or different, whereas this starts by saying, no, we’re not talking about that. We’re talking about communities. That’s an interesting thing that happens when you talk about a culture that is by definition is “othered” – but doesn’t want to conform to what being “othered” means. Then when you conflate that with being Japanese and queer, it can get really weird. The way Vice talks about Japan is really frustrating, so I really appreciate Graham’s approach to the subject which is, I want to know who you are. Not, this is what I think it means to be queer against the rest of the world or against straight culture.

Kolbeins: That’s such a good point. I feel like even before we were working on the film, we were having a lot of conversations about how Japanese sexuality is portrayed in Western media and trying to work around some of those stereotypes. There are all kinds of ongoing narrative threads in terms of discussions around the declining birthrate and what that means. Japanese people aren’t having sex, or whatever catchy clickbait headline people want to put out there. It’s much more nuanced.

There are so many issues to navigate and Graham, you and I are both white cis males and we are coming at this as outsiders.

Kolbeins: That was on the front of my mind. Not trying to take up space in this world I was trying to portray. Not wanting to Columbus or colonize anything and say, no one’s ever heard of this before! It’s a discovery! This is something that’s been rooted in these communities for decades and we’re picking up the story from where they are now. I didn’t want to make it all about how “weird” this is compared to in the states. Or making all of these comparisons based on assumptions one would have being a white cis person. My job was to try and disappear as much as possible. I didn’t want to narrate or have myself on camera. I just wanted to sit and listen and observe.

Ishii: To go back to something you said early on, you were clear that this wasn’t going to be anthropological. Which is another white supremacist approach. “They’ve been doing this anal sex thing for two hundred years!” [laughs]

One way you approached that was that it was a document of a community but also portraits of individuals and really foregrounding individual experience.

Ishii: I like that. It was a collection of portraits.

I’ve read your books and as far as someone like Tagame, with artists from other cultures we so often know who they are, but we don’t have a sense of the community and context they came from. After watching the film, I felt like I understood his work a little more.

Kolbeins: I’m glad you had that experience. That’s the experience I had over the past decade. And during the making of this film, to some degree. I started out as a fan of this work, coming from North America, having seen gay manga artwork online, but I didn’t fully understand the context the work was being made in, or what the lives of the artists were like. That’s where we started with Massive. Sitting down and getting to know these artists. Their work had been circulated but there hadn’t been a lot of interviews or spotlights on them. We wanted to bring out that context.

I don’t want to insult other documentaries or pay you a backhanded compliment, but it was a very visually striking film, in a way that a lot of documentaries are not.

Ishii: I think you should put down other documentaries! [laughs]

Kolbeins: The subjects of our film are all so visually striking. It’s hard not to make something that’s aesthetically pleasing when you’re around these amazing people. I made a point to use this gimbal stabilizer steadicam-type thing to get these really fluid B-roll shots that we could use with the talking head portions. I feel like it increased the cinematic vibe of the film since everything looks fluid and slowed down.

Ishii: One thing that I’ve noticed about documentaries about Japan – I think to a one, when they’re written by non-Japanese people – there’s some preamble about how hard it was to get the footage or how hard it was to gain access to the community or the flight being long. It’s something I think about more as I’ve seen more of these things and rewatched some of them. I want to commend Graham – and I’m not saying this to gas up myself – because Graham put it together so it didn’t look like it was unapproachable or secret. Shooting it in that way where you’re positioning people in an open context was also interesting I thought. That’s one of the messages you get out of this, I hope, that it’s not weird and not tawdry.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, people who were willing to be interviewed for a film called Queer Japan were out and open about their lives and their work.

Kolbeins: I don’t want to leave people with the idea with that closetedness doesn’t exist in Japan, or that everybody is this open. These are people comfortable being featured in a film called Queer Japan. Once they opened themselves up to us, we had this very intimate view of their world. We did one interview that didn’t make the cut with an editor of a gay magazine. He’s also a business owner of a gay shop and he’s involved in the community, everyone in his circle knows who he is, but he didn’t want his face to be on camera. His reason was family. Often there’s this “don’t ask, don’t tell” in families. Although his whole business and life are wrapped up in gay culture, it’s just not something he wants his parents to see.

You mentioned it took years to make and what was the process of doing the interviews and assembling the film?

Kolbeins: We wanted it to be able to evolve organically so we started with a handful of people. We did eight interviews in 2015. That was before we had any budget. It was just a proposal. That was part of what we submitted to the Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission. Once we had funding from them, we were able to do a kickstarter and get additional funding. In 2016 I was there for five months on a cultural visa and that time let things expand and unfurl in unexpected ways. Some of the interview subjects I had not met before starting production, but other people recommended them to us. Tagame has lots of fun and interesting connections in the community.

Poster by Sophia Foster-Dimino

As you were saying that I thought of the poster that Sophia made for the film of a literal street and the physical community and these connections.

Ishii: I love that poster so much. I thought she captured it so well.

Kolbeins: Sophia Foster-Dimino has been one of my favorite illustrators for a long time. I kept seeing her work in Toronto when we were tabling at Toronto Comics Arts Festival. I love all of her details and she really combines so many elements of the film into one image.

You said earlier that you wanted the film to be contemporary. What did that mean? I feel that like pornography, it’s hard to define, but you know it when you see it.

Kolbeins: We wanted to feature a number of different age groups in the film. All of these people have different experiences. They may have been out of the closet for a few months or a few decades. I feel like when we go into queer culture there’s usually a limited number of spaces and we find people congregating there from different generations and interacting and exchanging stories and supporting each other. It was important to show a broad perspective of the Contemporary moment that isn’t just, what are young people doing? Or, who are the people who established this world? But a mix and everything in between.

Ishii: In Japanese culture the word “contemporary” can be loaded because there’s a lot of nostalgia. Are you talking about contemporary in the sense of a Japanese person defines themself as “modernized” – which is also loaded. Or contemporary as in they’re living in the moment and working in the times? That phrase gets deconstructed in Japanese culture quite a bit. If we were going to nitpick, it was a contemporary documentary even by Japanese standards, but there wasn’t no history. There was tons of context.

Kolbeins: A lot of people operating in the contemporary moment are bringing history into what they’re doing. It was really cool to be able to speak with people who have that frame of reference. Like Tetsuro Onitsuka, he’s the founder of this community center Dista in Osaka and he’s a professor and a historian and he talks about how the westernization of Japanese culture in the last 19th century changed everything and modernization swept away a lot of these expressions of queerness that and existed in the past.

You two are working on many things. Is there anything you want to mention?

Kolbeins: There’s something in the works we can’t talk about yet. And Anne’s translation of Our Colors is coming soon.

Ishii: Gengoroh Tagame just culminated his most recent all ages comic. It’s a coming of age story about a gay high school boy. It’s a really lovely story. It’s one of my favorites of his already. I’m translating that and it should be out next fall. Pantheon is publishing it as one fat volume.

Kolbeins: This has been such a strange year. My creative output has slowed, but I managed to shoot a couple of short music videos with Dorian Wood. I have been doing some stretching videos on YouTube, so I might get back to that. Right now I’m working on a screenplay, a near future sci-fi queer romance.

And right now Queer Japan is out in the world.

Kolbeins: It is out in the US and Canada on theatrical at home platforms and VOD. If you watch the version on Vimeo, it has both English and Japanese subtitles.