Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Tokyo International Lesbian & Gay Film Festival Highlights Issues Facing LGBT Japan

The Tokyo International Lesbian & Gay Film Festival, which was held at two venues during the middle two weekends of July, finished its 17th annual run to packed houses and many accolades. The first weekend’s event—held at a movie theater near Tokyo’s famous gay district of Shinjuku ni-chome—was mostly a boy’s affair, with several directors in attendance for talk sessions: Thomas Gustafson (Were the World Mine), Lee Young-Hoon (No Regret), C. Jay Cox (Kiss the Bride, Latter Days), and Parvez Sharma (A Jihad for Love).

The second weekend, however, was all about the ladies. The international lineup of guests included Zero Chou, director of the Taiwanese film Drifting Flowers, together with producer Hoho Liu and stars Chao Yi-lan and Serena Fang; Otsuji Kanako, Japan’s first and only out lesbian politician, who spoke to the audience following a showing of lesbian-themed films Lez in Wonderland and Freeheld; and Cathy deBuono from the festival’s closing feature Out at the Wedding, together with girlfriend Jill Bennett, who also appeared briefly in the film.

While the issue of lesbianism in Japan has largely remained unaddressed by most media in recent years, this silence is slowly starting to be broken. This past spring, the Fuji television network aired a wildly popular prime-time drama titled Last Friends, which portrayed rising young star Ueno Juri as a motorcross racer struggling with her gender identity and romantic feelings toward a female friend. Due in large part to this program, issues facing sexual minorities were ushered into mainstream dialogue in a manner that was largely similar to the “Ellen” effect in the United States circa late 1990s.

Japan’s public broadcasting network, known as NHK, similarly ran a show around the same time titled “Haato wo tsunagou” (“Connecting Hearts”), which featured a panel of several LGBT activists engaged in an honest and often poignant discussion of their lives, including the difficulties that they face on a daily basis within present-day Japanese society. One of the panelists was Otsuji, whose run for the National Diet in August 2007—although unsuccessful—ultimately helped to bring issues facing LGBT individuals and communities into the collective consciousness of Japanese society.

Clearly, there remains much work to be done in this regard. Addressing the film festival audience after the showing of Freeheld (which documents the struggle for equality in Ocean County, New Jersy in the U.S., where a dying police officer is seeking retirement benefits for her same-sex partner), Otsuji remarked that the film carried a strong message for audiences everywhere. “The film portrayed a community coming together to ensure that this woman died with hope rather than despair, which is something that definitely rings true in Japan as well,” she commented. “Since despair will never do the work of changing society, the question we now need to ask ourselves is this: How can we can continue to cultivate hope?” 

--Kimberly Hughes

(Originally published in  LOTL magazine, October 2008)