Osaka may be a city best known for its delicious street food, neon-lit entertainment districts, and historic castle, but there’s also a charismatic queer scene bubbling up in clubs like EXPLOSION, Grand Slam, and G Physique. Better still, lesbian bars like JAKE and Marble, as well as club nights like Lady Killer, are on hand to offer an antidote to the men-only clubs which are still depressingly commonplace in queer districts worldwide. In these various venues, locals and tourists alike can expect to find friendly, like-minded club-goers, hilarious drag queens, and tipsy karaoke which often extends into the early hours of the morning.
This culture is, however, not restricted solely to bars and clubs; the Kansai Queer Film Festival is just one pioneering event working to highlight on-screen examples of LGBTQ stories across the globe. 2017 sees the festival enter its 11th year.
The festival comprises a number of screenings, all of which are spread across five non-consecutive days in three different venues across Kyoto and Osaka. Last weekend, the action officially kicked off in Osaka, where two queer community centers screened seven movies to an enraptured audience of culture junkies. In a statement on the official website, the organizers highlighted their desire to curate a program which “showcases films from around the world, including a special program highlighting queer, feminist, and sex-positive themes.” Judging by the movies shown so far, it’s fair to say they have succeeded.
It’s no secret that LGBTQ art often disproportionately homes in on Western culture, and white, gay male protagonists in particular. The festival’s eclectic schedule breaks with this convention by featuring a range of options which are genuinely queer as opposed to merely gay. Characters and storylines develop in handfuls of usually ignored countries worldwide, whereas themes and topics cover everything from cruising and sexual assistance for disabled people, to discrimination against queer parents and even the life and times of Marsha P Johnson, the often-forgotten rebel who was famously the first to fight back in the infamous Stonewall riots.
Refreshingly, the breadth of the movies on offer gives us a glimpse into a truly diverse spectrum of queer experiences; the kinds which are usually either erased, tokenized or simplified by mainstream media.
Alongside portrayals of BDSM and brilliantly unapologetic queer sex scenes, there are also touching love stories such as Sisterhood, an emotive, award-winning movie directed by Tracy Choi. One of the most poignant features on the schedule, Sisterhood follows the development of a young relationship between two women, recounted through nostalgic glimpses of the past. The story is complex, rooted in hope, tragedy, and a series of brilliantly nuanced queer protagonists. When coupled with beautiful cinematography, the result is an excellent example of cinema’s potential to humanize the kind of experiences often lived out but rarely seen on-screen.
Elsewhere on the schedule, When We Are Together We Can Be Everywhere is an example of porn done well. It’s fair to say that most of us are probably so used to tacky clichés, hugely over-dramatized orgasms, and, um, weird salad scenes that we forget porn can be a genuine artistic medium. Director Marit Östberg seeks to remind us of this potential with a documentary that homes in on the sheer beauty that can come of two (or, in many cases, more than two) bodies fucking. There’s no sense of voyeurism; instead, the film purely celebrates a variety of kinks, fetishes, and fantasies without judgement.
Finally, it wouldn’t be a queer festival without some depiction of a gay sauna.Spa Nightticks this box in an extremely impressive fashion, moving beyond tired stereotypes by narrating the story of a young, shy teenager in Los Angeles’ Koreatown. The story of forbidden love is one which is important to highlight – thehandkerchief codesand “tearoom trade” are a crucial part of queer history. This movie illuminates the depressing fact that these stolen romances are still a reality for those not fortunate enough to be born to accepting parents, which is precisely why this story of queer sexual discovery will undoubtedly resonate with audiences worldwide.
As opposed to just showing the features, the festival also offers a series of online educational tools and abreakdown of terminologywhich can be translated loosely into English. This is necessary – even words like “cisgender” can still seem unnecessarily complex so, by breaking down these linguistic barriers, the organizers have assured a clarity in communication which makes this event as perfect for queer people as it is for those simply wanting to learn and understand more. Extensive information on subtitles is provided as well as a sign language interpreter – this rare attention to detail highlights a true desire to create an event which is accessible to all.
In every country worldwide, this dedication to showcasing queer art and breaking down stigma is still necessary. In Japan, however, it seems particularly important. On paper, the country isrelatively progressive– particularly when compared to the 71 countries across the globe which still persecute queerness by law. Same-sex sexual activity has been legal since 1880, and trans people are relatively well-protected in the sense that they have the option to match their legal gender with their true gender identity without any huge obstructions.
Despitesome progress, there is still reluctance to discuss queer rights on any large-scale political forum, meaning that events like the Kansai Queer Film Festival are crucial. From the extensive explanations of queerness on the official website to the conversations promoted in the community centers which act as its venues, every effort is needed to both support and create more exemplary events.
Not only does the festival raise awareness and create visibility, but it also seeks to educate and spark discussion by bringing hidden stories to the big screen.