Saturday, July 26, 2008

ブログ・ザ・ファイナル (The Final Post)

Well, the festival ended 6 days ago, and now my work for the festival has come to an end. So I thought I would sign off by quickly telling you a little about my experience as a volunteer with this festival.

I started attending the festival’s weekly planning meetings near Takadanobaba in perhaps mid-May of this year, not sure what exactly to expect, but – after nearly 8 months of living just outside of Tokyo, wanting desperately to connect with the organized gay community here. I was immediately struck by how casual and relaxed everybody seemed. The real work of planning and executing the festival gets done at home, in hours of work that no one save the person doing them sees, except in so far as they produce the festival we have all enjoyed so much over the past two weekends.

I had been a volunteer at the Toronto’s InsideOut Gay and Lesbian Film and Video festival for the previous three years. That festival is about 4 times as large, and has several paid staff that work year round. This festival has none of those advantages. This is an all-volunteer operation. It’s a testament to how much they care about bringing this festival to Tokyo’s rather small and rather invisible gay community (all while holding down demanding full-time jobs, I might add) that they don’t just give up in frustration, as I am sure we have all been tempted to do at some point along the way.

There are, of course, other English-speaking foreigners who assist the festival in various capacities (writers, translators, transcribers, subtitlers, etc.) but – again – most of that work goes on doubly behind the scenes, with no one ever really seeing the faces of those involved until they appear at the festival to a hearty cry of ‘Hisashiburi ne!’ (Long time, no see!). I was the only visible foreigner who attended meetings from the time I began volunteering in the spring, so I was delighted to find that it is a very international group. Most of the core staff have lived abroad for several years, and even some of those who haven’t speak better English than many of the people teaching the language in Japanese public schools! As a queer foreigner, I am usually a bit guarded with most people I encounter in day-to-day life. The festival staff and – during the festival – its guests have been among the very few people with whom I can be totally relaxed in Japan. So I never really felt like an outsider. I felt immediately embraced by a wonderful team of people who have, I think – I hope –, all become my friends.

After completing a few odd jobs for them (transcribing a film, watching another to check the that the subtitle list was in the right order, editing and proofreading the festival brochure, press releases, in-theatre announcements and other English-language materials and messages), the question came up of what I wanted to do during the festival itself. In Toronto, I had always just been a ticket taker (I also did some rather mundane office work after the festival), since that way you basically meet everyone coming through the door – a great way to reconnect with all those people in the community you haven’t seen in a year, for one reason or another. Here, that role didn’t make sense, because aside from being able to answer the question, ‘Where is the toilet?’ with ‘Asoko de’ (Over there!), I would get into trouble as soon as any more complicated question arose in Japanese. So Sugawara-san, our head programmer, pitched me the idea of doing an English blog, so that people in other parts of the world could get not just information but a real flavour of what was going on at the festival. I agreed, thinking I’d just be going to films and writing reviews of a sort. I hardly expected to be thrust into the role of reporter and interviewer, as I was, that first weekend.

To admit to my bias, I have to say, as a Canadian I have been bombarded with American media my whole life, and I think I’ve consumed more than enough of it for one lifetime. Japan and Canada have something in common in that regard. Both countries are hugely economically interlinked with the U.S., arguably to the point of dependency in both cases. Both Canadians and Japanese consume a huge amount of American media. But the fascination is rather one-sided. We know a lot about the U.S., but most Americans know relatively little about us. Similarly, American films on Japanese themes are few and far between. Maybe once or twice a decade you get a decent film that rises above the stereotypes. Even if it doesn’t completely succeed in this regard, any film about a place as little understood abroad as Japan has a big impact. Readers of this blog may have gotten tired of my ‘Lost in Translation’ questions, but every foreigner I know (and very few Japanese, interestingly) have seen the film ‘Lost in Translation’, and many of them say that it was a big part of their reason for wanting to come here.

So, all of that said, I wasn’t particularly interested in spending my time at the festival seeing American films, though of course, in retrospect, I am glad I did because it means that I met a lot of really wonderful people. I would have been happy to focus on the Asian films, just as – personally – I choose only to watch Japanese films, with few exceptions, while I am living here in Japan. For gay people as well, I think it’s problematic that so many of the images of gay life that come to us – whether realistic or total fantasy – are coming from the U.S., and thus, have very little to do with the reality of queer life in Japan or other parts of Asia, or the world generally. If we believe what we often say about the value of diversity, then I think the conversation needs to go both ways, and not be a monologue running from West to East.

However, little as I expected to be thrust into the role of reporter, I really enjoyed chatting with the (mostly foreign, mostly English-speaking) guests of the festival. I was really impressed that there were no prima-donnas, no out-of-control egos – just a lot of really nice people, both serious as artists with something to say and good-humoured in their pursuit of their own brief adventure in this country. All of the films got a great response, as did the guests themselves, not so much hounded (that wouldn’t be Japanese!) as politely asked for autographs and photos. And those of us who had the time and the privilege to hang out with them outside of the festival made, I hope, a few new friends.

I say those of us who had the time because, really, I think I had the best job at the festival! With virtually no responsibility, I got to see maybe a dozen screenings for free, met all the guests, and didn’t have to work long hours manning a desk or a booth. The dedication of our core volunteers, astounds me, since many of them worked all day every day, and therefore, could not possibly have seen more than one or two films. But then, that is the work ethic that Japanese become accustomed to from quite a young age.

As anyone who has lived abroad knows, it’s a kind of constant battle to keep yourself emotionally even-keeled. It doesn’t matter where you are, if you are a foreigner – even the privileged sort of foreigner that English-speaking Westerners are in Japan – you face a number of daily challenges to your mental health. It happens to be the case that during the festival I was also going through a tough patch of dealing with my life in Japan, perhaps because I am coming to the end of my first year here, many of my foreign friends are going home, and I am faced with the reality of my life here, which is constrained in a number of ways it is not at home. If you stay for a year, it is possible to view it as a kind of long working holiday. After a year however, when many of the other holidayers that you arrived with go home, you have to face up to the fact that you are choosing to make some sort of a life here, and a year is really not long enough to learn a new language, make a new group of friends, adjust to a different culture, and make a new life.

Thus, there were definitely times during the festival when I was tempted, out of emotional frustrations that had nothing to do with the festival itself, to abandon it and this blog, and just take that time back for myself. What prevented me from doing so was precisely the realization that everyone else was working quite a bit harder than me and, in many cases, for a less immediate reward. It just wouldn’t have been right to let all those people – all those friends – down.

So to all of them, I wish to say a heartfelt thank you. Arigato gozaimasu! Otsukarasama desu! Thanks for giving me the privilege of being part of your festival.

We’ll have another chance on August 9th to celebrate and to see each other once again before many of us scatter to the winds of work and school and other pressing obligations until sometime maybe 6 months from now, when the wheels start turning slowly again, gaining momentum little by little, until next July is quickly upon us and the 18th annual Tokyo International Lesbian & Gay Film Festival is here. Barring some unforeseen disaster, I’ll still be here, and ready to bring you another year’s instalment of events, guests, interviews, reviews, and whatever else crops up under our tenacious little rainbow here in the land of the rising sun.

Until then, 気をつけてね (Take care of yourselves, eh?).

さようなら (Sayonara)!


‘Out at the Wedding’

Directed by Lee Friedlander
2007 / USA / 90 mins
Screened Monday July 21, 18:50 - Spiral Hall

Ever since 1967’s ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’, Hollywood has been making hash out of the culture clash between urban and rural America, the coasts and the centre, the north and the south. ‘Out at the Wedding’ follows in this tradition beginning with a fairly realistic premise: a woman named Alex is engaged to be married to a black man named Dana (the gender-ambiguous name is key to the plot) and has lied to her family about him, and vice versa, for fear of how they will react. Alex, a sophisticated professional woman living in New York, goes home to South Carolina for her sister’s wedding (with a gay sidekick in tow) and suddenly finds herself outed as a lesbian, when the secrecy around Dana’s identity is misinterpreted. Rather than quickly resolve the problem by coming clean, however, Alex adds one ridiculous lie to another – egged on by the gay sidekick – until, in true Shakespearean fashion, all the characters (including a fraudulent lesbian girlfriend, Reesa, hired to lend credibility to the incredibly story) are brought ‘on-stage’ at the end for the improbable, but highly entertaining resolution.

The filmmakers wisely choose not to dramatize many of the conversations required to settle matters between the aggrieved parties in this film, showing them instead from a distance with the soundtrack sketching in the emotional content of these elliptical scenes. After all, the film requires the recently married sister, Jeannie, to discover that she is herself a lesbian, and thus, to abandon her husband of a few weeks in favour of Reesa, her sister’s hired ‘girlfriend’. He takes it surprisingly well, as the light tone of this farcical comedy requires. As Northrop Frye has said of comedies: “Happy endings do not impress us as true, but as desirable.”

One of the most unique aspects of story, in so far as it is a gay film, is that the main character (Alex) is not gay. Rather, it is only as an indirect result of her shenanigans that her sister is enabled to come to terms with her sexuality – a novel twist in an otherwise familiar formula. A subordinate theme is Alex’s own prejudice in so far as this whole crazy misadventure is caused by assumptions she makes about the prejudices of others. To that extent, the film also challenges the stereotypes that make this genre – of the sophisticated urbanite going home to the country bumpkins – work in the first place.

The packed audience thoroughly enjoyed the film, not least the flirtation between Alex’s sister, and Reesa, as portrayed by the beautiful, strikingly tall and seriously athletic actress Cathy DeBuono, who – along with her real-life girlfriend Jill Bennett (who also plays a small part in the film) – joined us for the final Q&A session of the festival.

And, to round out the festival, MC Margaret joined us once again, this time dressed in a fabulous pink cocktail dress, and an enormous pink afro wig and top hat, that made her look perhaps like a flamingo escaped from the wardrobe department of ‘Priscilla: Queen of the Desert’. She began the Q&A by picking up one of the jokes in the film and asking audience members which they preferred, hot dogs or tuna sandwiches? Rather embarrassed respondents were rewarded with one or the other, fresh from one of Tokyo’s thousands of combinis [convenience stores], no doubt.

Then Cathy and Jill joined us and we were ready to begin.

Cathy: Thank you for inviting us. We’re really honoured to be here. This my girlfriend Jill. [Just to prove it, they shared a kiss, which was greeted with a wild reaction from the audience.]

Margaret: So how are you enjoying your stay in Japan?

Cathy: Everyone is so nice, so patient, and so helpful. We are really not accustomed to this back in the States!

Jill: We went out to some of the lesbian bars last night, and everyone was really friendly and welcoming.

Margaret: [With a hint of innuendo…] Have you met anyone special in Japan?

Cathy: Yes… we’ve met lots of special people! But I know what you mean… (laughter)

Margaret: After meeting you and having seen the film, my feelings have changed. I want to be held by your big strong arms!

[Cathy obliged by giving Margaret a hug, while a zillion flashes went off from the audience.]

Margaret: How did you get such strong arms?

Cathy: Genetics have a lot to do with it. I’ve been really lazy the past six months. But I was an athlete before I was an actor.

Margaret: What sort of athlete?

Cathy: I was a volleyball player for a while. I grew up playing sports. I played volleyball in college, but I knew that one day I would have to give up volleyball due to age or injury, so I wanted to be an actor as well.

Margaret: Now, Jill, you were also in the film…

Jill: Yes, I was in it for like 30 seconds! But I’ve done lots of lesbian TV and film roles as well.

Margaret: How did the casting for this film work such that you were both in it?

Cathy: I think it was just a coincidence. Jill and I didn’t actually get together as a couple until two years after this film was made.

Margaret: So did you meet during the making of ‘Out at the Wedding’?

Jill: Yes, but more recently we finished a film where we actually starred opposite each other, so that’s when we really got to know each other.

Margaret: Is seeing the film today the first time in a while that you have seen it?

Cathy: I have seen it lots of times at festivals. I always like seeing it with different audiences around the world – I like to see how they react to it. We also watched it recently with friends from out of town who hadn’t seen it.

Margaret: What scene do you like the best? Is it one with yourself in it?

Cathy: Of course it’s one with me in it! (laughter) I like the batting cage scene [when the flirtation between her character, Reesa, and Alex’s sister, Jeannie, gets into full swing – sorry, bad pun!] and the dance [also between Reesa and Jeannie]– they both turned out really sweet.

Margaret: So it was okay getting hit with that ball? [In the scene, Reesa takes a stray ball in the face!]

Cathy: Well, I didn’t really get hit of course. That was just a little movie magic.

Margaret: Have you experienced any difficulty as an out lesbian in the film industry?

Cathy: The biggest barrier for me is my physicality, not my sexuality. I am tall, dark and athletic, and there just aren’t that many roles for women of my physical type. But Jill has had a different experience.

Jill: I’ve done some mainstream film and TV work, but I do find that in recent years because I am out, it does come up as a problem with advertisers, and that’s where TV channels make their money. But the flipside of it is that I get to do a lot of lesbian and gay films and TV, and that’s my community, so I am really happy about that.

Cathy: It has worked in reverse for me. There are a lot more roles for me now because of the growth of lesbian and gay film. In the mainstream, I was always being cast in army roles or as a cop! That’s where they put me. But now I get to do more fun, leading lady sort of roles.

Margaret: There was an actress in the film called Mink Stole, from the John Waters family. What was it like working with her?

Cathy: She is a real character! She does cabaret and that sort of thing. She would just come to work, put on her wig, and we would have a blast with her.

Audience member: I think the story is really great. Very twisted in a great way. I wonder, how did the writer come up with such a great story? How did she write it?

Cathy: The writer, Paula Goldberg, is a very funny person, and I think a great writer. And she’s a lesbian. But the story is not based on her real life. Actually, the actress who played Aunt Cora in the film [Myrna Goldberg], who comes out at the wedding, is Paula’s mother.

2nd audience member: Were you told by the scriptwriter how to play the character, or were you free to do it as you liked?

Cathy: I spent some time talking to Paula, but I was left on my own a lot to create the character. I didn’t want the character [Reesa] to be the stereotypical tomboy lesbian who meets the cute straight girl, gets thrown a curve ball, falls in love, etc. I really liked that there is a human quality to her. She’s just a person with all the normal vulnerabilities.

Margaret: There is a scene in the film of you two [Cathy and Jill] fighting. When you fight in real life, does it look like that?

Jill: Yes! (laughter)

3rd audience member: I’m a fan of your blogs and know you’re both active in the queer community. What projects are coming up for you?

Cathy: We are doing a videoblog together called ‘What’s your problem?’ I am also a psychotherapist, so we sit down with a friend and discuss a problem they are having, and we make it funny, but there is also some real therapeutic value to it. My blog was on but now it has moved to the Here! Films site.

Jill and I are also doing an online travel show, and we are shooting some footage for it here in Japan. Our goal is to go to different cities and visit gay communities there to see what life is like. We want to help connect everyone around the world so that we can live the fulfilling, happy, creative lives we all know we want and deserve. We don’t have an online home for this project yet, but you can also check out our MySpace pages. We always blog about what we are doing on MySpace.

[After Ari-san had finished translating this long response into Japanese, Cathy added:] Oh, my god. Did I say all that?! (laughter)

Jill: You talk a lot, Cathy. (laughter) My blog is called ‘We’re Getting Nowhere’ ( on We have fun with it, but we are also critical and we talk about issues in the community. I’m also involved in an online show called ‘3WayTV’ ( It’s a comedy – who knew lesbians could be funny?! And I am on ‘Dante’s Cove’, which is a gay and lesbian supernatural drama, as strange as that sounds!

Going out last night and talking to women here and hearing their stories reminded us [she and Cathy] that we live in a place [California] where it is really easy to be gay, but that’s not the case for everyone. So we want to share your stories with the world. The Internet is such a great tool for that. As people get to know us, it brings our community together, which is what we have to do. And then the walls start to come down…

Cathy: [After another long translation from Ari-san…] See, Jill, you did it too! (laughter)

Margaret closed the session with a round of thanks to our guests and all the volunteers without whom the festival could not operate, and reminded us of a number of upcoming queer film festivals in Japan. For more information on those, check out the following links.

Cathy and Jill were greeted by dozens of mostly female fans in the lobby outside, and even stayed for the beginning of the mini-celebration that the staff had once all the patrons had left. They were asked if they had any comment to make to the staff, and egged on by – well, me actually! – Jill and Cathy tried their best at some Japanese phrases out of a travel guide. Jill’s Japanese was pretty rocky (no offence – she’d only been in the country a few days!) but Cathy managed to say – in Japanese – ‘I don’t speak Japanese’ with quite a good accent, which won her a hearty round of applause from the staff, and she celebrated her victory in true athletic fashion with a few triumphant fist pumps in the air. These two lovely ladies, who are using the platform their acting careers give them, to raise issues and try to push things forward for LGBT people, left us in a great mood - even as the festival came to its inevitable close for another year. So, thanks again, Cathy and Jill !

To them and to the festival staff, Otsukarasama desu (Thanks for your hard work !).

Japanese Rainbow Reel Competition

Screened: Monday July 21, 16:25 – Spiral Hall

Each year, the festival screens several Japanese shorts and awards a 100,000 yen ($1000 US) prize to the winner of an audience award at the Japanese Rainbow Reel Competition. The goal, of course, is to connect these challenging independent filmmakers and their work with as large an audience as possible, and to encourage future production of queer-themed films. This year’s selection was as strong as it was varied, and provided a much needed view into the day-to-day challenges of gay life in Japan, alongside all the charming fantasies (as well as difficult realities) in the many foreign films that screened at this year’s festival. Let’s look briefly at each film, and then find out who our winner was!

Blue Seeds
(Director: Kawano Hiroki – 25 mins)
‘Blue Seeds’ is a story about an estranged father and son who reconnect while the father lies dying in bed of AIDS. In flashbacks, we see the relationship between the father and the woman who gives birth to his son. She obviously knows that the father is gay – they meet in a kind of club environment – and there is no suggestion of a sham marriage to legitimize the pregnancy. She accepts the fate she is consigning herself and her child to when she decides to have this baby. Years later, the son is a married man conducting a homosexual affair, which he feels honour-bound to break off when his wife becomes pregnant. It is thus a story of how we unwittingly repeat patterns we didn’t even know we had inherited. For all the grief and tragedy of these truncated relationships, however, the film ends with the promise that things will be different for this new baby, and that perhaps even the young lover cast out by the new father will be welcomed back into the life of his family. Provocative, moving, and ultimately hopeful, Blue Seeds speaks to the tremendous pressure gays still experience in Japan to conform to a heterosexual ideal of marriage and family, regardless of the costs to themselves, their wives, children, and same-sex partners.

(Director: Tanada Kiyoshi – 2 mins)
A film so short, cute, and clever, that to describe it even briefly is to risk revealing all! I shall do so here, certain that it will continue to screen and give pleasure to patrons at festivals around the world. Scene: A man and a woman play the board game Othello, in which pieces coloured white on one side and black on the other are turned over whenever the opposing player succeeds in trapping a row of the opponents pieces. This goes back and forth until, in about the third round, the piece turned over appears gray. Now a new player is sitting at the table. A title card reads, in Japanese and English: “The world is not only BLACK and WHITE.” Another new player places a bright red playing piece on the board. Title card: “It’s not all GLAY either” [‘glay’ is a popular misspelling of ‘gray’ in Japan; there is even a J-pop group with this name!] Another shot of the game; a drag queen has joined them and is filling up the board with all sorts of different coloured pieces. As we zoom out, rainbow coloured dots streaking across the screen, title cards read: “Be a colourful!” “Be a juicy!” And that’s it! A simple bi-lingual message in support of diversity and tolerance, delivered in charmingly mixed up Japanese English! What a treat!

Ten Years After
(Director: Igarashi Takayuki – 9 mins)
Imagine you are a young widow. One day, an attractive young man comes to the door asking about your husband. He’s asking questions about your late husband (a friend of his) from behind a beaded curtain that drapes the doorway – a beautiful cinematic metaphor for the barriers that stand between their mutual understanding of the same man. After some initial hostility, you let him into your home. After all, you intuited that your husband was gay. Part of you knew “where he got his kicks.” But this is your first chance to confront someone from the other side of that curtain of ignorance and deception. Your goal is not to lash out at this young man, but to understand. He explains that they had been lovers in college. But that in their final year, he broke it off. “We have to get married. This can’t go on forever,” he explained bluntly. This is the scenario of ‘Ten Years After’, another film that – like ‘Blue Seeds’ – interrogates the psychological reality of the pressure in Japan to remain in the closet. It ends with the cry of an infant, the young widow’s child, and an ambivalent, ambiguous look of compassion, incomprehension and doubt passes between her and the lover her husband cast aside.

When I Become Silent
(Director: Yamamoto Hyoe – 18 mins)
The only lesbian-themed film among this year’s selections, ‘When I Become Silent’ is perhaps the most understated and hypnotically beautiful, in part because of its stylish use of the austere urban landscape around Tokyo’s Metropolitan Government Building, and because of the serenely beautiful faces of its two lead actresses, who seem almost like and elder and junior version of the same person. It is the story of a professional woman and her younger lover who are about to move in together. The older partner, in perhaps her early 30s, is full of confidence, even promising to quit her job if she runs into any difficulties in fulfilling their dream of cohabitation. Her younger partner, a writer, is not so certain, however. Plagued with doubts, and unable to write, they go out for dinner together to discuss what is troubling her. When asked by her lover, the young writer tells her the story of the novel she is attempting to write, and we are forced to wonder if the plot, involving a love affair between an older boarder brought into a household with a young girl, is not some version of their own love story. Elliptical, beautifully composed, spare and economical in the information it conveys and conceals (both visually and through dialogue), this is a masterful film about the constraints and fragile hopes of a young couple secretly plotting their future happiness. Like them, we are unsure, but the film leaves us more hopeful than afraid that they will indeed find this place of expected domestic tranquility, and that the writer’s creativity will once again be unleashed.

(Director: HiBi-Papa – 4 min)
A computer-animated cartoon about a rainbow-coloured assortment of (presumptively male) creatures that bear a passing resemblance to a Japanese Tanuki (raccoon-dog). They live in a little tumbledown shack behind, what appears to be, the iconic castle at the centre of Disneyland – a kind of low-rent dormitory complex for queers! When the orange HiBi-Chan comes home and tries, rather innocently, to watch a bit of porn (“I [heart] Mens” is the title!), his attention is repeatedly drawn away by the one working out upstairs, the one listening to symphonic music at full blast next door, the one practicing heavy-metal guitar on the other side, etc. Various slapstick scenarios play out, first with dueling remote controls, and then with a too-short headphone cord that keeps popping out of the TV, allowing the whole complex to hear what’s going on. Eventually, the whole place comes crashing down as the other HiBi-Chans strain to listen to – or better yet – catch a glimpse of “I [heart] Mens”. A cute, quick glimpse into a cartoon send-up of our own rather compartmentalized and media-saturated lives!

(Director: Watanabe Kazuki – 25 mins)
Like a lot of young men, Kaku wants it all. And to get it, he has been lying. To his mother. To his girlfriend. To his boyfriend (an amateur drag queen) as well! But his lies are not uncovered until he dies in a tragic motorcycle accident, and all three descend on his apartment to sort out his worldly possessions. What begins in tragedy, soon becomes a kind of domestic farce, as the unlikely trio begins cohabitating, until they can decide what to do with Kaku’s stuff. (The title is thus a play on words: 'Sankaku' is the Japanese word for triangle, but in this film there are also 3 Kakus - the different Kakus that each person knew.) What they discover is that for all his deception, Kaku loved and was loved by all three of them, and that seems to be something worth holding onto. But this is not a maudlin piece about grief or deceit. It is a hilarious, punk-rock fuelled, kicking, screaming, howling celebration of the unexpected twists, and unexpected people, that love of whatever kind is forever bringing into our lives. As the slightly melodramatic opening title card warned us: “Love is the only thing that matters. Don’t laugh at me, or I’ll kill you!”


After the screening, the directors and casts of all 6 films joined us, for a total of more than 20 people on stage – a living, breathing embodiment of the diversity of the community and of the films they were there to share with us. The director of HiBi-Chan, who credits himself as ‘HiBi-Papa’, even introduced us to his own little HiBi-Chan – a 16-month-old boy who was there being gentled dandled by his proud mother.

The audience were asked to submit their votes after the screening, and the winners were announced at the beginning of our closing event, with festival director Miyazawa Hideki, Margaret and Rachel D’Amour all in attendance for the festival’s last screening. Miyazawa-san informed us that the festival had attracted nearly 8,000 visitors, which makes it the most successful year ever (Tokyo’s rather modest annual Pride parade attracts a mere 3,000 participants).

All six directors from the Rainbow Reel screening were invited back up on stage, and then Margaret announced the winner of this year’s Rainbow Reel award…

San-Kaku, directed by Watanabe Kazuki, who was forced to reveal that he is not in fact gay! But which Margaret quickly interjected made us all the more grateful that he had chosen to make this very enjoyable and oddly inspiring film, with its infectious punk-rock attitude of ‘I am who I am and f**k you if you don’t approve’!

But since the Rainbow Reel award is an audience award, the festival thought it appropriate to add an additional juried award this year, and Jonah Markowitz (director of the excellent ‘Shelter’ – see my interview with him on this blog) graciously agreed to judge the selections and give the Special Jury Award to…

‘When I Become Silent’, directed by Yamamoto Hyoe.

Jonah was asked what he thought of the films, and this is what he had to say:

“I live in Hollywood, where lots of movies are made the same way. To see all these young filmmakers telling such different stories in such different ways is really nice to see.”

And why did he select ‘When I Become Silent’ for the Special Jury Award?

“I chose this film because I think it’s a film in which there was as much importance to what was not said as to what was said. And I think that’s very cinematic. But I also liked the way that all of the films showed the importance of women in our lives, even in men’s films, because that is something often left out of these stories.”

So, hopefully, all the directors went away feeling that their work was appreciated, as it clearly was. The festival will offer the Special Jury Award, as well as the Audience Award for the Japanese Rainbow Reel Competition, again next year.

So, with the prizes given away, and without any further ado, it was time to settle in for our final feature, ‘Out at the Wedding’, and bring the festival to a close with our final guests, Cathy DeBuono and Jill Bennett.

‘Shelter’ Screening & Interview with Director Jonah Markowitz

‘Shelter’ (Director: Jonah Markowitz)
2007 / USA / 88 mins
Screened: Sunday July 13, 16:00 – Wald 9; Monday July 21, 13:40 – Spiral Hall

I didn’t hesitate to tell the director, and I won’t hesitate to tell you, I think this is one of the best films – perhaps the very best film – that screened at this year’s festival, and is one of the best queer films I have seen in my more than 15 years of watching queer cinema. Sometimes we hear people say, about a film like ‘Brokeback Mountain’, for example, “It’s not really a gay film; it’s just a very human film” – or something to that effect. It is meant as a compliment, of course, to the artists behind the project, but it sounds oddly homophobic, like a back-handed insult to the queer community. Why can’t a film be both ‘gay’ and ‘very human’, after all? In this case, however, I think one can pay the film this compliment without in any way slighting the queer community. It is a gay film, as the director insisted to me, but there is a seamlessness with which it has blended sexuality with its other themes and preoccupations that I haven’t often seen in (particularly American) films about queer characters.

On paper, it doesn’t sound like this film should work. A young struggling artist from a poor background and a gay writer who is the elder brother of his best friend reconnect while surfing and begin a love affair that threatens to tear the fledgling artist’s world apart. Throw in a chronically ill parent and an unmarried sister with a child, and set it against the backdrop of Southern California’s beaches and surfing culture, and you might have the makings of a bad made-for-TV issue-of-the-week movie. But here it is handled so skilfully that it never slips over into the sort of ‘Beverly Hills 90210’ melodrama that the film’s premise puts it in danger of becoming.

How does it avoid these pitfalls? Quite simply, through a miraculous combination of good writing, excellent direction, cinematography and visual design, a knock-out performance by its young lead, Trevor Wright, and an original folk-rock soundtrack that sets the tone without distracting us with over-familiar melodies. I cried through about 60% of this film, not because it is relentlessly sad – it actually concludes with a well-earned and in no way cheap happy ending – but because I found it so moving to see these elements brought together with such grace. It’s the kind of film that, maybe, we were hoping would become possible 10 or 20 years ago, in which being gay is just a normal part of life, even as the world takes its time adjusting to the fact of our existence.

The director, Jonah Markowitz, joined us after the screening for a Q&A session with Nishimura-san.

Nishimura-san: Thank you very much for coming.

Jonah: Thank you for having me in Tokyo. It’s an honor.

Nishimura-san: One of the most impressive things about this film is that it concludes with a gay couple raising a child. What made you want to tell this kind of story?

Jonah: I didn’t set out specifically to make a gay film. I just wanted to tell a story about two people coming together and taking responsibility for one another and for a child.

Nishimura-san: As you may or may not know, it is almost impossible for us to see gay couples raising children in Japan.

Jonah: On the two coasts, in New York and Los Angeles, it is quite well accepted and relatively common. In the middle of the country, you don’t see it. But in California we have gay marriage now, so you are seeing families develop. Maybe it has something to do with being near the ocean! (laughter)

Nishimura-san: While you were making the film, or as you watch it now, are there any scenes in particular that stand out for you?

Jonah: Each time I see it I like different things, but that image of the family at the end is really important to me. Seeing the three of them together, that’s still an ideal that we are working toward. And also that in this story the gay character is not a disturbance or a threat to the family, as we sometimes see in other kinds of stories. Here, he’s responsible and helpful – he’s the one that is holding the family together.

Audience member: Thanks for this great film. It made me homesick [for California], so thanks for that. My question is about the importance of place in this film. Why did you choose to set it in San Pedro, rather than Malibu or Manhattan beach?

Jonah: San Pedro is a less affluent community and it’s a place you never see in movies. It’s usually Beverly Hills or the places you mention. I really wanted the characters to meet outdoors, not in a gay bar or something like that. So it had to be a place with a beach, maybe a port, a bridge – a mix of the ocean and of urban landscapes. I wanted Zach’s environment to be very urban [he’s a graffiti artist], so San Pedro had all those things.

2nd audience member: I really enjoyed the film, but I was surprised that the sex scene was so soft. It’s unusual in gay films now not to be more explicit about the sex. I wondered why this was. Did you cast heterosexual actors for this reason, or were you worried about shocking your audience?

Jonah: Both of the actors are straight, but they had great chemistry so I was really happy to get them. It was much more important for me to show intimacy in this film, not just sex. I wanted to show what was going on with their faces. For Zach, this is his first time to be really intimate, really vulnerable with someone. So, when we rehearsed it, we just talked about being in love, which anyone can relate to. You know, it’s that experience of spending all day in bed with someone. By the way, that set of clips in the middle of the film of them doing things together we jokingly called our ‘Big Gay Love Montage’. (laughter)

3rd audience member: As a mother, I find it hard to watch that last scene where the mother walks away from her child. Was it difficult for you to tell the story that way? Did you ever consider letting a larger family structure form around that couple?

Jonah: Yeah, it was hard for us too. The actress who played the mother was pregnant at the time, so it hit home for her. But we weren’t seeing it as a final separation. She’s not going away forever. So the film is a bit open-ended that way, which I like.

I had a chance to chat – too briefly, I fear – with the director, Jonah Markowitz, after the screening. Of course, I began by enthusing about the film to him in much the same terms as I have here.

Guy: Is this your first feature-length film?

Jonah: Yes.

Guy: It’s a great looking film. Right from the opening credits, it has a very distinctive visual style. Where does that come from?

Jonah: Well, I worked as an art director for years before this. You know, again, we wanted to reflect that urban world of Zach’s, so the graffiti and the opening credits are all part of that.

Guy: How did you like the Tokyo audience for the film?

Jonah: They were great. They really responded well to the film. And it was nice to see so many women in the audience. Often at queer film festivals it is all men.

Guy: Sort of a technical question – was the film shot digitally or on film?

Jonah: We shot it on film, but then transferred it to video for editing. Most films are edited digitally now, because it is just so much easier. But then typically they are transferred back to film. We decided to stick with digital for projection as well. The projection here today was one of the best I have seen.

Guy: It’s interesting in this film that it’s a love story that crosses lines of class as well as sexuality. It put me in mind of E.M. Forster’s ‘Maurice’. Was there anything you were trying to say by introducing that theme?

Jonah: Sure, I mean, it’s the same idea really that in love we all connect regardless of class, race, sexuality.

Guy: In the end, this is a story about a kind of improvised family. Why did you want to tell that kind of story?

Jonah: From the beginning we wanted it to be about family. You know, losing our families is perhaps the scariest thing we can imagine. So stories about improvised families, as you say, are appealing because they suggest that we can make new families out of just the people that are already in our lives, and that gives us hope.

Guy: Did you have any models for telling that kind of story? My background is in literature more so than film, and often Dickens’ stories involve improvised families.

Jonah: No, there was no model. I wanted to create a new model.

Guy: Trevor Wright’s performance is fantastic. Did he have any difficulty playing this role?

Jonah: No, Trevor is a natural. He’s done a lot of TV work, and he grew up in the industry, so he is an experienced actor.

Guy: The surf setting is really interesting – it really sets the tone of the film. Did you have a special unit to do the surf scenes?

Jonah: Yeah, I had a great surf DP [Director of Photography] for those sequences.

Guy: Why was it so important for you to incorporate this into the story?

Jonah: Because I think in America male bonding tends to take place outdoors. These are not conventional gay characters, so I wanted them to connect in a kind of unconventional way.

Guy: Are there any films or filmmakers that you particularly admire?

Jonah: I admire anyone who can get their films made. I think we really have to honour and respect each other as fellow artists.

Guy: Where did the financing for this film come from?

Jonah: From Here! Films. They’re an all-gay cable TV channel in the U.S., and they’re primarily involved in distributing films and television programs, but they decided to set up a program where they would fund the development and production of a feature. This is the first feature film to come out of that program.

Guy: It feels to me that this is a film about which you can say, “It’s not a gay movie” without slighting the gay community.

Jonah: Well, it is a gay movie, but it’s not just a gay movie. I think young queer viewers in particular are not interested in the standard gay coming out stories any more. So this film sort of breaks out of that mould, and maybe is something young people can relate to more easily.

Guy: What about the child actor in the film? How did he deal with being a film with these themes?

Jonah: He didn’t really understand the context of the story, so there was no issue with that.

[At this point, Jonah’s partner Sean joined the conversation.]

Guy: Is the character Sean [played by Brad Rowe] in the film named after you?

Sean: No, no. I didn’t meet Jonah until after the film was finished!

Guy: So have you guys had a chance to get out and explore Tokyo? Does Tokyo live up to the hype?

Jonah: Absolutely. Yeah, we’ve been having a lot of fun.

Guy: What do you like best about the city?

Sean: I like just walking around the city and seeing the variety of scenery. I must have put like 2,000 miles on this pair of Vans [his shoes]! I like finding a park and you think it’s just going to be a few trees, and it turns out to be this forest in the city.

Guy: Earlier in the week we had Thomas Gustafson and Cory James Kruekeberg here with ‘Were the World Mine’. They’re a couple and they make their films together. Do you guys collaborate with each other?

Jonah: No, Sean is not in the industry – thank god!

Guy: So what is your next project?

Jonah: I am developing several things at the moment, some queer-themed and some not.

And with the success of ‘Shelter’, I’m sure we’re ready to watch anything else Jonah wants to show us.

EPILOGUE: ‘The Downtown Disco Wallet’

Incidentally... when we first met Sean the previous night he gave us an invaluable little urban survival tip, as he showed us what he calls his ‘Downtown Disco Wallet’. Suitable both for world travellers, like him and his partner Jonah, or just for style-conscious revellers out for a night on the town, the Downtown Disco Wallet is a practical solution to the perennial problem of how to carry cash and cards all in neat package that doesn’t make it look like you’re concealing an eggplant in the front pocket of your jeans (though that might well bring about other desirable opportunities).

So, what is the Downtown Disco Wallet? It’s simple: take your credit cards, your ID, business cards and any other essentials of the same size, and wrap your cash around them. Affix a standard type black binder clip, readily available at Business Depot or any office environment you happen to be slaving away in until you sell your first screenplay or land your first role in a Michael Bay film. And voila! No muss, no fuss! Just one handy, slender, ultra-practical and in no-way unfashionable DIY [Do-It-Yourself] Downtown Disco Wallet. Let’s see how long it takes this trend to catch on! Thanks for the tip, Sean.

‘Asian Shorts’ Screening & Interview

Screened: Monday July 21, 11:30 – Spiral Hall

The Asian shorts program is new this year – a welcome and perhaps long overdue addition to the festival. I had a chance to talk with the programmer, Aki-san, but before we turn to that interview, let’s look briefly at the films.

It Seems To Rain (prequel)
(Director: Allen Tsai; Taiwan – 7 mins)
A charming and evocative, if teasingly vague, little film about a high-school romance between two boys. The clip is virtually devoid of dialogue and set to anthematic ambient music that makes the discovery of their affection for one another feel like the small triumph that it is. I couldn’t help feeling that it had the tone of a trailer for a longer film and, lo and behold, later in the program we got that longer version, with some important differences. They are discussed in my interview with the programmer [see below].

Katong Fugue
(Director: Boo JunFeng; Singapore – 10 mins)
Based on a play by Alfian Sa’at (this is an English language film), the story takes the form of a somewhat disembodied dialogue between a concerned mother and her emotionally distant teenage son. The boy is a piano player and throughout the piece we hear him playing portions of a Johann Sebastien Bach fugue. His prying mother wants to know what he is doing in his room, the inviolability of which – along with his piano – becomes a kind of cover (and metaphor) for his secret liaisons with his boyfriend. Played out in a series of images that are tableau-like in their composition and economy of action, it’s a little like flipping through a private photo album and trying to stitch together the narrative of this mother-son relationship from a series of hypnotic and beautiful fragments.

A Family Portrait
(Director: Boo JunFeng; Singapore – 9 mins)
The second of two films from Boo JunFeng, this film is in Spanish, and not one Asian face graces the screen. Instead, the setting is European. The conceit of this tidy little film is that while filling out an innocent questionnaire, the younger sister of the protagonist, a teenage boy, asks: ‘What is ‘Sex’?’ This conjures up his recollections of a moment years earlier when a photographically inclined cousin came to take the family portrait, and he later discovered his parents engaged in a three-way sex act with the cousin. Far from shocked by it, however, he sees their union as an act of love, and gives that as his definition of ‘sex’ to his sister, when all she really needed to know was whether to check the box marked M or F on her questionnaire!

(Director: David Maurice Gil; USA – 12 mins)
Another English-language film, this time from the U.S., ‘Just’ takes us into the bedroom of a wealthy writer who has just woken up from a night of – we have to imagine – great sex with the impossibly cute trick he has brought home. The leads are two beautifully built and tanned Asian-Americans, one of whom is the cowriter of the film, Edward Gunawan. Their conversation shortly becomes tense, however, as the two of them realize that the assumptions they had made about one another the night before may have been mistaken. In 12 short minutes, ‘Just’ touches on all the thorniest issues of gay sexuality, promiscuity and fidelity, but leaves it up to the audience to decide where we stand.

Poetry In Motion: Fragile In Love
(Director: Mickey Chen; Taiwan – 14 mins)
Less a linear narrative than a series of impressionistic images of gay men in a minimalist night club interior, this film takes its inspiration from a classical Chinese ‘kanshi’ poem, but of course queers the story. Both the club and what little clothing its beautiful patrons have on are bright white tinted blue by black light. Title cards with the pulsating and morphing Chinese characters of the poem separate the various brief segments of a narrative involving a couple that appears to oscillate nearer and further away from the blue flame of the gay disco’s perennial promise of unlimited sexual adventure. Sexy, moody, and atmospheric it was nonetheless impenetrable to me due to the absence of English subtitles. (Sorry!)

It Seems To Rain
(Director: Allen Tsai; Taiwan – 38 mins)
The wonderfully intriguing music video / trailer that opened the program now expands into a fully fleshed-out, dialogue-driven short film. The story centres on a high school aged boy who hates his naturally curly hair and is constantly straightening it, only to loose the battle with the rain and humidity, which curls it up again. This, of course, becomes a metaphor for his desire to straighten out his sexuality as well. He has a kind of girlfriend, though their relationship seems rather platonic, but a new student in his class clearly sets his sights on him, and they begin to tip-toe toward some kind of queer relationship. This never gets much further, however, than an unreturned pass the one boy makes toward the other in a porn shop they briefly visit. Just as lush and brooding as the short, it nonetheless leaves us with more questions instead of fewer about the nature of this nascent homosexual high school romance.



So what brought this program of films and the nearly sold-out audience it attracted together? Let’s ask Aki-san, the programmer.

Guy: How did you come to create this program for the festival?

Aki-san: It wasn’t really planned. This is the first year we’ve done it. I’ve actually been programming for the festival for about 10 years. We’ve had programs of Japanese shorts before, but not an Asian program like this. I just happened to have these films in front of me and it made sense to present them as an Asian program.

Guy: Do you mind me asking, are you Japanese?

Aki-san: My nationality is Japanese, but my blood is Chinese [Taiwanese].

Guy: How did you end up in Japan?

Aki-san: I was born in Taiwan, but my parents wanted me to be educated here. So when I reached the age to go to university, my parents sent me here to be trained as a doctor. My uncle was a doctor living in Japan and he said that he would adopt me and pay for my schooling, so I came to study here at the age of 20 and I’ve been here ever since.

Guy: In this program, we had a film in Spanish with no Asians appearing on screen. We also had two English-language films, one of them from the U.S. So what is your definition of an ‘Asian’ film?

Aki-san: Of course, there is no absolute definition. It’s just a matter of the feeling I get from these films. In each case, either the writer or director or some of the actors are Asian. You know, ‘Brokeback Mountain’ was directed by Ang Lee, who is Taiwanese, so in that sense it is a partly Asian film too.

Guy: And I think that’s good – to shake up people’s expectations of what an Asian film is or can be. Can you tell us a little about why you think these are important films for us to see?

Aki-san: I wanted to show the whole range of possibilities for films that are – at least partly – Asian. So I included two films by Boo JunFeng from Singapore, because I think he is a really interesting filmmaker that we should be watching now. He’s just made another really good short film, but it is not gay themed. The American film, ‘Just’, was co-written by Edward Gunawan, who is a second-generation Vietnamese American. So this expands the idea of what an Asian film is.

Guy: The two versions of ‘It Seems to Rain’ were really interesting, but also a bit frustrating. In the shorter one, we are left wanting to know more about the characters. But at least it is clear that it is a gay relationship. In the longer version, however, this is more ambiguous. What is the relationship between these two films?

Aki-san: Well, the long version was actually made first, and the two are included together on a DVD. The shorter version was actually re-shot after the long version was completed.

Guy: Yeah, because there are definitely images in the short version that aren’t in the long one. They are more explicit – you see the boys actually holding hands, etc.

Aki-san: Right. I would actually have liked to show the long version first, and then the short one, but the director insisted we show them the other way around. We also contemplated showing only the longer version, but we thought people would be confused or dissatisfied. Both films are actually the director’s graduating project from film school. The second one was made as a kind of trailer for the first film. What he was trying to show was that something of professional quality could actually come out of a graduate film project, and I think he succeeded in that regard.

Guy: Yes, they are both great looking films. You know, I’ve really been looking forward to seeing these short film programs [including ‘Strange Couples’ & ‘Moon Shadow’ and the ‘Japanese Rainbow Reel Competition’] because we are so bombarded with American media. I mean, the popularity of a show like ‘The L Word’ – it seems like every lesbian on the planet is watching this show! Even my kids at school know this show and watch it. But I wonder if this is such a good thing. I mean, the situation for gay people is very different in America than it is in Japan or other parts of Asia. So, how do you feel about this dominance of mostly American English-language queer cinema and TV?

Aki-san: Certainly, there is a disparity between Asia and the West in terms of gay rights and queer visibility. Things are much more advanced in that regard in the West. So it’s inevitable that you’re going to see a lot of queer cinema coming out of these places. It’s only recently that it has become okay to be gay in places like Singapore and Taiwan. So we are still seeing stories about coming out and coming to terms with being gay there. Whereas in the U.S. and Europe, we are seeing films about gays raising children, etc. So it’s important for us to see these films too, to see a different perspective on gay life. There just are not enough Asian films on gay themes being made to fill a festival like this.


Of the 15 features we screened this year, 3 (or 20%) were Asian (‘Drifting Flowers’, ‘No Regret’, and ‘Bangkok Love Story’), and of the 6 shorts programs, half had a Japanese or Asian focus. So the films are out there, and surely the audience for them is too. And while it’s important for people here to be able to see what the situation is for queers in other parts of the world – as so many of our selections did – I think it’s also important to remind Western audiences that the dominant images and ideas around queer visibility and queer rights are Western in origin, and aren’t necessarily consonant with queer people’s experiences, expectations, hopes or desires elsewhere in the world. I’m sure the mix of Asian films, European films, American films, and films from other parts of the world that we will be screening next year will give us more chances to consider those contrasts, and to evaluate what being ‘queer’ means through as many lenses as possible.

Incidentally, the Tokyo International Lesbian & Gay Film Festival is entirely staffed by volunteers, and Aki-san – a medical doctor of Taiwanese origin living in Japan – is just one example of the wide range of backgrounds, interests and skills that they bring to the festival. We look forward to another selection of Asian shorts at our 18th annual festival next year.

INTERVIEWS: James O’Shea & Philipp Karner

‘Kiss the Bride’ (director, C. Jay Cox)
2007 / USA / 99 mins
Screened Saturday, July 12, 16:00 – Wald 9
& Sunday, July 20, 18:15 – Spiral Hall

James O’Shea is perhaps your typical American hunk in appearance only. Beneath the tanned skin, the perfect teeth – often glinting in a mischievous, boyish smile – and the chiselled body is a man utterly at ease with himself and those around him. This is all the more impressive given his small town Southern background, where the borders of masculinity are rigorously policed, and anything that strays from that norm is liable to be labelled ‘queer’. He has, I think, the most difficult role in ‘Kiss the Bride’, because he has to persuade us that a man can have a single, deeply intimate relationship with another man, without being gay, and still choose for himself something like the heterosexual ideal of marriage and monogamy, which challenges all of our ideas of sexuality, gay and straight. I began our interview by telling him sincerely that I thought he had done an excellent job of persuading us of the emotional reality of this character.

Guy: … you know, as a gay person, I’m often irritated by films in which straight guys play gay characters, because frequently there is a kind of escape clause built into the film for the actor. At some point, something comes up to suggest that the character is not really gay. But in this film, I think you really have the toughest role. People can accept gay characters [like Matt] now, as long as gay is gay and straight is straight. But you have to persuade the audience that someone who is not gay would have a relationship like this [with Matt] and stand up for it at the end as your character [Ryan] does, and they have to buy it. If they don’t buy your performance, then the movie is sunk. So congratulations for pulling that off.

James: Thank you, that means a lot to me. Yeah, there is definitely a conflict there that I felt I needed to be true to in order to make it come across for the audience. You try to do your job in a way that you bring that conflict the character is experiencing to life in a way that is three-dimensional.

Guy: But how do you do that, exactly?

James: You have to sort of find yourself in the most conflicted way you can, in order to sell that conflict on the screen.

Guy: Do you know of anyone in your own life who has been through something like this? I have certainly known of a friend of friends who, for whatever reason, developed a very intimate relationship with one other man, but his is not gay, and is now married to a woman.

James: No, I don’t know anyone who went through that. But I’ll tell you, I come from a small town in the south where gay and straight is very rigid, and people don’t stray from talking about anything that goes outside the norm of a ‘straight’ conversation. They don’t veer off into anything that might make them uncomfortable. I like to think of myself as having more aspects than that – that I can be poetic and artistic with what I do. But it’s uncomfortable for most guys. We are still struggling with that as a society.

Guy: So how did you come to be an actor?

James: I was actually started as an athlete. I was a soccer player attending college on an athletic scholarship – I wasn’t going to acting school. My brother was a musician, though, who went to Harvard, so I knew there were other possibilities. I was injured and lost my scholarship, so I needed to find something else. My girlfriend at the time introduced me to modeling. That led me California and eventually to acting.

Guy: Actors who play gay roles are always being asked what it was like to do the love scenes. (I think it’s actually a kind of homophobic question.) I mean, you guys are professionals. You’ve been working for maybe 10 years. But what about when you were just starting out? It has to be different when you are a teenager or a young adult and you haven’t dealt with this stuff yet.

James: Yeah, I was a shy fucked up kid. I had a lot of stuff to work through.

Guy: And how did you do that?

James: Just by making every mistake you can make! When I think back to the first performance I gave, or the first relationship I was in, I don’t even know who that person was [i.e. himself]. But you know, my feeling is that the more times you fall on your face, the more colors you have to show to the world.

Guy: It seems to me a lot of American actors enter the business through non-traditional routes. Unlike British actors, who for the most part are classically trained in theatre first. Have you done any theatre?

James: You’re right. And, no, I never did theatre. I took some acting classes in California, and I did some scenes from Shakespeare and that sort of thing.

Guy: I imagine L.A. is a pretty crazy place to live.

James: It is. New York is all about Broadway. But L.A. is all about movies and television. So anybody who wants to be a movie star ends up there. It’s tough – you are literally competing with the whole world.

Guy: Where do you see your career going, or where would you like to see it go?

James: Of course, I want to be able to choose my roles, not just have to take whatever comes along. I think you have to tap into some sort of positive philosophy and just envision the top and go for it. I need to work as an actor and be creative with what I do. So my ultimate goal is just to be fully realized as an artist.

Guy: How are you enjoying Japan?

James: I love sake! I love sushi! I think Japanese girls are super sexy. I like the ritualistic qualities to traditional Japanese culture, and the attention to detail. I mean, even this building [the Spiral Hall] is an example – everything is just so.

Guy: Have you had a chance to get out and explore Tokyo at all?

James: Yeah, we came with a group of friends. So we did Tsukiji – the fish market. We did shopping in Harajuku and visited Electric City [i.e. Akihabara, known throughout the world as a destination for cheap electronics and the main stomping ground for ‘Otaku’ – obsessed fans of manga an anime]. We went up to Ueno Park and checked out some of the museums there. I love just walking around the city and discovering things by accident.

Guy: So have you had any ‘Lost in Translation’ moments?

James: Crossing that huge intersection in Shibuya was a ‘Lost in Translation’ moment. Also, I’ve found that my humour doesn’t really work here.

Guy: Yeah, sarcasm sometimes doesn’t go over. They don’t seem to understand it.

James: And that’s my humour!

We’ll hear about this again when I put the same question to James’s co-star Phillip Karner.

Incidentally, Philipp’s brother – a beaming blond boy of 19 who has just completed his one year of mandatory service in the Austrian military – came along for the ride, and appeared to be getting every bit as much attention as his brother and James. Granted, both of the Karner boys are very easy on the eyes! But you have to wonder what purpose a picture with a random white stranger – even if a very cute one – serves in the symbolic universe of those festival goers (and there were a lot of them) who insisted on getting their picture taken with him. In any case, he was a very gracious subject, and didn’t seem in any way to mind the attention of his admirers, regardless of their gender!

Guy: So you have quite an interesting story. You grew up in Austria, but now you are an American actor working in Los Angeles. How did that happen?

Philipp: I came to the U.S. when I was 19, after I finished my year in the Austrian military. Everyone has to do it, which sucks. I just always knew as a little kid that I wanted to be an actor and that the U.S. was the place to do it, so I came over the first chance I got.

Guy: How did you break into the industry?

Philipp: I settled in New York first, where I studied acting at the Lee Strasberg Studio [famous graduates of this school include Anne Bancroft, Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel, Paul Newman and Al Pacino]. I did some shows, sort off-off-Broadway, and then I got small roles on ‘Sex in the City’ and ‘The Sopranos.’ After 3 years in New York, I moved to Los Angeles in 2001.

Guy: L.A. must be kind of a crazy place to live. I was talking to James about this.

Philipp: It can be, sure, but I love Los Angeles. There is a lot nature you can access easily. You can have a dog there and a bigger house. It’s harder to do those things in New York. So you can make L.A. whatever you want it to be.

Guy: I don’t want to ask that standard question about doing love scenes – I mean, you are a professional actor with years of experience.

Philipp: Yeah, it’s hard to make those moments seem real, because it is very technical. You have all these lights and machines and people hovering around you, and you just have to focus on what’s going on between those two characters. Everybody knows what it is like to be in love and to be confused. So you just focus on that emotional aspect and ask yourself, ‘What would I do in that situation?’

Guy: You mentioned in the Q&A that you worked at a gay bar for four years. What did you learn about gay culture or gay men from that experience?

Philipp: I learned that everyone is crazy when they are drunk! But also that we are all looking for the same things – for company, love, companionship – it doesn’t matter what your sexuality is, that’s just human nature. You see people who clearly want something more substantial, but they are looking for it in casual encounter after casual encounter. So, I think it helped me to see that sometimes we are confused about what we are looking for, or we’re looking for it in the wrong places.

Guy: I’ve heard that the film industry is very hard on relationships. You know, you are constantly meeting new, interesting, attractive people. You often have to go away for long periods of time to work on a film.

Philipp: Yeah, it is tough on relationships. But if you are committed and serious about someone, you can make it work. If you’re not, then there are a lot of temptations and your relationships won’t last long if you’re working in the industry.

Guy: Years ago Ian McKellen—

Philipp: Who, by the way, is my favourite actor.

Guy: Oh, really?

Philipp: And my favourite writer is Ian McEwan [who wrote ‘Atonement’, recently turned into a successful film.]

Guy: Ian McKellen said that one of these days a really talented young actor would come out of the closet and everyone would love him and he’d make a lot of money for his agents and the studios. But it hasn’t happened. Why do you think that is?

Philipp: I don’t think the country [i.e. America] is ready for it yet. The film industry is about money, and that means the centre of the country. There is a huge number of people out there between New ‘York and L.A. that are just not ready for it. It’s very idealistic to think that you can be open about your sexuality, but the world is just not ready for it yet. Knowing that a man is gay immediately emasculates him in the eyes of many people. That’s unfortunate, but that’s the reality.

Guy: In the film there is this moment where Tori talks about a happy kid who gets an average report card and is then made miserable because his parents view him as ‘damaged goods’. The message is that it is okay to be average. But it is coming in a Hollywood film filled with people who are not average. So how seriously are we supposed to take that message, or how seriously do you take it?

Philipp: If you shot a movie with a bunch of average looking people, unfortunately no one would go to see it.

Guy: You just described most of British cinema!

Philipp: And I love gritty British cinema. But most people want a fantasy when they go to a movie.

Guy: But I mean L.A. must be full of people who went there with big dreams and didn’t quite make it. How are they supposed to feel about themselves? At the end of the day, it has to be okay to not be Tom Cruise.

Philipp: And I would hate to be someone at that level of fame. I think that’s a kind of hell. They don’t seem like happy people to me. As long as I can work and make films that I am proud of, that’s enough for me.

Guy: So have you had any ‘Lost in Translation’ moments?

Philipp: Only because of James! His humour doesn’t go over so well here!

Guy: Yeah, we talked about that! Sarcasm is not well understood.

Philipp: I am fascinated by the culture of politeness here. Having lived in New York, where everybody is in your face, it’s pretty incredible to be in a city this size and to find everyone so polite. It’s a nice thing.

Philipp, James and C. Jay were all due to leave the next day. James and Philipp both expressed regret at not being able to see more of the country, but promised to return soon. We suggested they come in spring, for Sakura, since the heat of July is probably not the best time to visit! But both of them made a big impression on our audience, and I’m sure lots of good roles and other opportunities await them in the future. We can only hope some of those roles will bring them back to our festival in the years to come.

Bride of ‘Kiss the Bride’!

‘Kiss the Bride’ (director, C. Jay Cox)
2007 / USA / 99 mins
Screened Saturday, July 12, 16:00 – Wald 9
& Sunday, July 20, 18:15 – Spiral Hall

The festival’s second weekend was all about star power, with the lead actors from three of our most popular films (‘Drifting Flowers’, ‘Kiss the Bride’ and ‘Out at the Wedding’) attending their respective screenings. The hunky stars of “Kiss the Bride’, James O’Shea and Philipp Karner, were treated to a long round of applause and uncharacteristically loud and enthusiastic hooting when they emerged from backstage after the film’s second screening (it has also screened the week before with director C. Jay Cox in attendance). And it wasn’t just gay guys who turned out to see them. They were equally set upon by female fans looking for autographs and pictures in the lobby afterward.

Once again, Nishimura-san hosted our Q&A session, for which we were also joined by director C. Jay Cox, looking relaxed and refreshed from his trip to south western Japan earlier in the week (see below for more details).

Nishimura-san: Thank you for coming. I’m Nishimura-san, and this is Raina, our interpreter for the evening. I’m sure many of you noticed Tori Spelling in this film. We haven’t seen here in a while so it’s nice to see her again. Unfortunately, she is not with us tonight, but we do have the director and the two hot stars who played Matt and Ryan in the film. Would you mind introducing yourselves briefly.

C. Jay: Hello, my name is C. Jay Cox. I’m the director of the film.

Philipp: I’m Philipp Karner – I played ‘Matt’. Thanks for having us in Tokyo, we’re having an amazing time.

James: [Speaking in a funny low, brooding voice] I’m James. I played the other character [Ryan]. Arigato. (laughter)

Nishimura-san: My first question is for the director. What inspired you to make this film with the messages it has about marriage and commitment and also sexual identity?

C. Jay: I liked that we don’t know where this story is going to go. Every character is going to re-evaluate themselves, and be revaluated by the audience, by the end of the film. I particularly liked the Alex character [played by Tori Spelling], because there is a fluidity to her, the way she comes to accept her partner’s past love affair with a man.

Nishimura-san: [addressing both actors] Was there anything interesting going on behind the scenes? Was it easy or difficult to play a gay role?

Philipp: Well, for starters, he [James] is crazy, which made it difficult. (laughter) No, we read our parts together months before shooting began. Working with Tori was a lot of fun; we were really lucky to get her… James likes to get naked a lot.

James: To expand on that idea that I like to get naked, firstly, it was in the script. The script required me to have my shirt off a lot of the time, so… But then, you know, it’s different for different types of shots. For close-ups, you don’t need to be naked. But for medium shots, every time they said ‘Action’, I would drop my pants. (laughter)

Philipp: I think that’s called ‘method acting’. (laughter)

Audience member: [To C. Jay] I really enjoyed the film, so thank you for that. What was your reason for choosing Tori Spelling for the role of Alex?

C. Jay: I think because of who her father was [legendary TV producer Aaron Spelling] she is underestimated as a person and as an actor, and the same is true of this character, so it was a good fit.

2nd audience member: I wanted to ask [the actors], when you worked on the film, did you develop any emotions for each other?

[Hamming it up for the audience, James and Philipp reached their arms out to one another and stared mock-lovingly into one another’s eyes, which the audience thoroughly enjoyed.]

Philipp: Of course you hope to make the relationship seem real while you are acting, and naturally you develop feelings for people when you are working closely together.

[James, once again clowning for the audience, put one hand into his shirt and pumped it out repeatedly, Bollywood-style, to show us his heart throbbing with affection for his co-star. The audience howled with laugher.]

Philipp: [To James, with mock sincerity] Baby…

James: We had chemistry, you know. We were both chosen early on. In the middle of filming, I hated his guts. But in the end, we’re friends… [To Philipp] I love you. (laughter)

3rd audience member: In the closing scene, when you have all three of the lead characters together, and as they explain their feelings for one another, what was the significance of each person expressing their feelings?

C. Jay: For me, the point is that commitment is more important than the label you put on a relationship. In the U.S. right now there is a lot of controversy over gay marriage, but I just feel that if your relationship is really strong, it doesn’t matter what you call it – or what society allows you to call it.

4th audience member: In this film there is some emphasis placed on the importance of friends and family in developing and supporting the relationship that becomes a marriage. Is that emphasis coming out of what’s been going on in the U.S. over the past few years [i.e. the debate surrounding gay marriage] or out of an ideal of how we would like to see our relationships recognized?

C. Jay: That’s a great question. You know, this is a romantic comedy, so partly it’s the romantic comedy ideal where everything is resolved and everyone is reconciled in the end. But the way our relationships are viewed by friends and family is of vital importance to us as individuals, which is why gay marriage is so controversial and so important.

5th audience member: Firstly, thank you for the wonderful movie. I gained a lot from it. The film touched on a lot of social issues, but as you say it is a romantic comedy. So how did you feel while directing and acting in a comedy that touches on such serious issues?

C. Jay: One of the things I liked about this project is that it touches on those issues. Certainly we wanted to make an entertaining film, but I liked that there is some substance there, but that it doesn’t hammer us over the head with those serious topics – it isn’t heavy handed.

6th audience member: This is kind of a broad question. Once you got this role, did you do anything to research it, like going to gay clubs or anything like that? And also, the film has already been shown theatrically in the U.S. When will it be available in DVD?

James: I did a lot of push-ups and sit-ups! (laughter)

Philipp: I’d been bartending in a gay bar for four years, so I didn’t need to do any research. The movie is now showing on a gay cable channel in the U.S., so lots more people are seeing it now, which is great.

C. Jay: The film will be out on DVD in the U.S. this fall, and should be available here shortly after that.

James: It was such a good script that it was easy to do without doing homework. As an actor you just have to apply yourself to an imaginary set of circumstances and make it as believable as you can. So that’s what I did. Plus the push-ups, because I am shirtless for three-quarters of the movie! (laughter)

Having thoroughly charmed our audience, the Q&A session with James, Phillip and C. Jay came to a close. But I caught up with them again in the lobby, after the mob of fans had settled down and dispersed, to catch short interviews with each of them. So have a look for that post here on the TIL&GFF blog.

But first…


As we mentioned last week, C. Jay arrived for the first screening of ‘Kiss the Bride’ on Saturday July 12, and then had half a week to kill before his stars arrived for the second screening. So being a writer and a man of the world, equipped with curiosity and a sense of adventure, C. Jay decided to head out and explore Japan on his own for a few days. Let’s find out how it went! (Ari-san, one of our programmers and MCs, also joined the conversation.

Guy: So how was your trip to Kyoto and Hiroshima?

C. Jay: Kyoto was amazing. My agent booked me into a Japanese room in a Western hotel, so I was sleeping on a nice futon with buckwheat pillows, which I love. The hotel also had a spa, and acupuncture, so I had that for the first time, which was great.

Guy: What did you do in the city? Probably visited lots of temples, right?

C. Jay: Yeah. Actually, as it happened, I was there during the Gion Matsuri. I sort of stumbled into it by accident.

Guy: Wow, that’s great! [The Gion Matsuri is an annual festival in one of the city’s temple districts to the east that easily ranks in the top 3 or 4 traditional festivals in Japan.]

Ari-san: So which was your favourite temple?

C. Jay: The one that’s set up on kind of a high cliff with falling water. I’m going to butcher the name…

Ari-san: Kiyomizu-dera.

C. Jay: Yeah, that’s it. Plus, of course, the Golden Temple [made famous by being burned to the ground by a crazed monk in the 1950s, a story later immortalized by queer Japanese author Mishima Yukio in his novel ‘Kinkaku-ji’ – The Temple of the Golden Pavilion]. There was also a really impressive one with a very high ceiling with a dragon painted on it and statues of 1,000 Buddhas. I actually walked into one just as it was closing for the day and the vice-abbot had changed out of his robes and was putting on running shoes to go for a jog! I had a nice little chat with him about Zen Buddhism for a while. And then, yeah, it was the Gion Festival at night and the huge parade during the day.

Guy: Did you have anyone to travel with?

C. Jay: No, I was all by myself, but you have interesting adventures that way. I got lost wandering around looking for a place to eat one night. So I found this little noodle house and ended up talking to the waitress for a long time. She got me to take out my map and she recommended which temples I should visit.

Guy: What about Hiroshima?

C. Jay: Hiroshima was very moving. I was only there for an afternoon, so I visited the bomb dome, the museum and the memorial site. I was in tears by the end. The personal stories in the museum really hit home for me. I grew up not far from where they did open-air nuclear testing in the U.S., and my relatives were exposed to the fallout from those tests.

Guy: There was a woman who spent 10 years researching a book on the history of this testing, and part of her thesis is that the U.S. government chose to do it where they did in part because the people who lived upwind of the tests were of a religious orientation that was disinclined to resist the government. I think she was talking about Mormons, which is ironic [Cox was raised as a Mormon, and of course his first feature as a director, ‘Latter Days’, is about a Mormon discovering his homosexuality].

C. Jay: Yeah, I mean I remember that when I was little a black government truck would drive up once a month and buy a galloon of our milk to test it for levels of radiation. I used to ask my parents, “If they are testing it for radiation, shouldn’t we be worried about this?” And their attitude was, ‘No, if was unsafe, the government would tell us.’

Perhaps that’s fodder for a future film of C. Jay’s. In any case, we had to cut our conversation a little short so I could squeeze in a quick interview with his two stars. But of all our guests, C. Jay really was one of the most gracious and giving of his time. We’re really glad he got to see more of Japan than just Tokyo, and look forward to welcoming him back with another film in the coming few years.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

‘Freeheld’ & ‘A Lez in Wonderland’

‘Freeheld’ (Director: Cynthia Wade)
2007 / USA / 38 min
‘A Lez in Wonderland’ (Director: Anna Margarita Albelo)
2006 / France / 26 mins
Screened: Sunday July 20, 16:00 – Spiral Hall

I have two confessions to make. 1) I don’t really like or watch much television. 2) I am probably still more naïve and idealistic that I ought to be at my age (I’ll be 34 this year). As a result, I have never been a fan of either ‘Queer as Folk’ or ‘The L Word’. I’ve seen a few episodes of each, but frankly, neither one represents gay life as I live it or want to live it. ‘The L Word’ in particular strikes me as fantasy, and outside of Miyazaki and the original Star Wars films (not those abominable prequels!), I really have no interest in fantasy.

So I was rather shocked when I saw ‘A Lez in Wonderland’, a half-hour documentary about a giant lesbian party -- the Dinah Shore Weekend -- held each year in Palm Springs. The festival asked me to prepare an English transcript of the film a few months ago, and I could hardly believe what I was seeing. Here was proof that ‘The L Word’ is not a fantasy, at least not for this one weekend each year, when thousands of affluent, attractive, and (apparently) extremely promiscuous lesbians gather for a party that makes gay men’s events seem tame in comparison! (Indeed, they are behaving like a certain stereotype of gay men, and taking it to the next extreme!) It looks like a lot of fun, if you can afford the hefty price-tag.

The film does a good job of showing both the fantasy and the reality of this hugely successful event, talking to dozens of regular visitors (including one young lesbian who is there partying alongside her mother -- also a lesbian) and special guests like ‘The L Word’s Guinevere Turner, who gives one of the film’s most interesting and intelligent interviews.

“The world is full of lesbians in the closet,” she says. “I would venture to say that 50 to 60 to 70 percent of women at this event are closeted in their real lives. But I also feel like, um, these are women who are just looking to blow it away. Just, like, ‘I’m just going to fucking put on a bikini and I’m going to make out with my girlfriend at the side of a pool.’ I’m not that girl, but I am the girl of, like, ‘Wow! Lesbians are really ruling right now. They are having so much fun, and there are so many women from all over.”

Its atmosphere of hedonism and sexual abandon (even the filmmaker’s sound engineer, who is straight, gets into the fun -- making out with several women, and wandering around topless) made for a rather dramatic contrast with the sobering, sad, but ultimately triumphant story of ‘Freeheld’, winner of the Academy Award for best documentary (short subject). A simple, intimate film about the lives of regular people fighting for the rights most people take for granted, it tells the heartbreaking story of Detective Lieutenant Laurel Hester, a career police officer in New Jersey’s Ocean County, who is dying of lung cancer, and leaving a young partner, Stacie Andree, behind. The film is a mix of at-home scenes that show Hester’s deteriorating health and the way her partner cares for her unstintingly, and scenes from the meeting chamber of the local assembly that show the obfuscating excuses and delaying tactics of the Freeholders -- the democratically elected representatives of the county authority.

The film thus serves as both a poignant and affecting human drama (one festival volunteer observed that perhaps 80% of the audience was left in tears) and a valuable object lesson in the fight for queer equality. Indeed, some of the most interesting interviews are with people like Lt. Hester’s first partner, a self-described conservative and Republican supporter, who would never have taken an interest in a question of same-sex rights, if not for the fact that the issue so dramatically affects “the best partner” he ever had.

Hester appears to have the support of the entire community and in scene after scene we see public meetings full of supporters essentially heckling the Freeholders into ‘doing the right thing’ by extending spousal pension benefits to Stacie. As one of her supporters tells the council of Freeholders: “You hold within your hands the awesome power to decide whether or not Laurel Hester dies in peace.” The entire community appears to be displaying signs in their window that say: “Don’t let Laurel Hester die this way.” Which raises the question: if the whole community supports their fight, why is it even a fight? Usually democratically elected leaders resist popular pressure because they fear there is a larger (silent) majority that opposes what they are being asked to do by a vocal minority. But the film never introduces us to any members of that silent majority, save perhaps a rather naïve high school girl who comes and makes a vacuous speech in support of the Freeholders (a moment reminiscent of Britney Spears’ mindless statement of support for George W. Bush in the film ‘Fahrenheit 911’). The principle of justice that animates the film is, of course, blindingly obvious to all of us. But this otherwise excellent film might have benefited from giving us some window into the lives and attitudes of those to whom it is not so obvious, since those are the people that stand in the way of full equality for members of our community.

The screening was followed by a talk by Otsuji Kanako, as well as Mr. Yamashita, a lawyer with the Tokyo Public Law Office, where he is part of team of lawyers interested in and ready to fight for expanded equality rights for same-sex couples and members of other marginalized groups.

Otsuji-san is perhaps Japan’s best-known lesbian public figure. She was a member of the Osaka Prefectural Assembly from April 2003 to April of last year. She had hoped to be elected to the National Diet in a seat filled by proportional representation, but did not succeed -- a difficult blow to the self-confidence of Japan’s still small and relatively quiet gay liberation movement. Since then she has opened an office in Shinjuku-Nichome, from which she continues her work as an LGBT activist. She has also been busy translating into Japanese a children’s book about a couple of gay penguins! (See her website at:

The host for the discussion, Ari-san, began by asking for Otsuji-san and Yamashita-san’s thoughts on the two films.

Otsuji-san: Well, there was a very strong contrast between the two, wasn’t there? (laughter) The first film was a view into a world I didn’t know existed! So it’s valuable for us to see what goes on in other queer communities around the world. Both documentaries give us this opportunity. But now we’d like to focus on the issues raised by ‘Freeheld’, especially since we have a lawyer with us who can let us know what the legal situation is like in Japan. Most of us are just living our lives and don’t even think about what would happen if our partners got sick. But ‘Freeheld’ shows us that while we can get very comfortable in our everyday lives, as soon as something like this happens, we are reminded of what the barriers are. So it is a very pressing reality, and we need to take a close look at it.

Yamashita-san: [He started with a joke by telling us his name, height, weight, and age!] I work with a group of lawyers in the Tokyo Public Law Office. We’ve dealt with all kinds of law from personal injury cases to murder to law dealing with children and families. When you are working on social issues like the one we saw in this film [i.e. same-sex spousal and pension benefits], you have to remember that there is a legal and governmental background to these issues, but that if you raise your voice, things can change -- sometimes faster than you expect. In Japan, at present, there are no such benefits for same-sex spouses.

Ari-san: A lot of us don’t know what the current legal situation is in Japan surrounding this issue. But pensions in general have been a big political issue in the past few years. [Otherwise popular former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi ran into serious political trouble, for example, for his government’s mishandling of public pension monies.] Can you fill us in on the legalities around pensions?

Yamashita-san: My immediate reaction to the film was to wonder, ‘Is there such a pension, transferable to a spouse, in Japan?’

Otsuji-san: Yes, there is a pension you can pass on. It’s a national, public system. If a husband dies, his wife and children can collect his pension.

Yamashita-san: But you have to understand, this is the public system we are talking about. It doesn’t apply to corporate or private pensions -- only to the self-employed, or public employees. It is part of the same system as the workplace injury benefits system.
There are a few other important points to consider. If a couple is not married, the pension can still be passed on as long as there is evidence that they have been living together for a substantial amount of time, that it is a stable ‘marriage-like’ relationship.
The second point is that if a man dies, his pension can be passed on. If a woman dies, however, it cannot be passed on to her husband.

Otsuji-san: Actually, I believe the rule is that if the husband is 55 or older, and the wife dies, her pension can be passed on to him.

Yamashita-san: What about your experience as part of a same-sex couple?

Otsuji-san: Well, for all intents and purposes, I am married. As a politician, I focused on trying to create policies that would benefit gays and lesbians. So, for example, if one partner is Japanese and the other has a different nationality, this can cause problems, such as difficulties accessing the public health-care system. I know of cases of people in this situation being denied health benefits. Even if a couple is straight, there can be difficulties passing on property, shared apartments and things like that. I know of a case in which a gay man died and his family quickly came in to take his apartment, which of course his partner was still living in. So there are a lot of challenges. You can imagine, losing your partner and your home all in a short period of time is very difficult.

Ari-san: Are there any legal mechanisms to resolve these disputes with parents of partners?

Yamashita-san: Well, in Japan you can adopt adults. So that is one alternative to marriage for establishing a legal relationship between partners. But of course it requires the consent of the person’s natural parents, so that’s only practical in cases where you have a good relationship with your partner’s family.

Otsuji-san: But even in cases where you have a good relationship with the family, you can still run into issues like whether you will be allowed to be present at a cremation ceremony after your partner dies.

Ari-san: What is the power of having a movement in support of something like spousal benefits for same-sex partners?

Yamashita-san: In Japan, we don’t usually organize ourselves into big social movements. But individually we do have the power to change things. I was really impressed by the film because it shows people speaking out, talking about their own experiences – the conservative who never supported same-sex rights before, and who never would have been involved in a social movement like this, but who decides he wants to help solve this problem. That’s very powerful. In the film, Laurel talks about being told at her job interview [to become a police officer] not to talk about being a lesbian on the job, but she says that everyone nonetheless knew. So by being open about who we are, we can become stronger as a community. It still doesn’t seem like we have the right social conditions in Japan to do that. It is still scary to come out at work or to your neighbours. But we have to start doing that and building partnerships with people in that way.

Ari-san: From a legal perspective, how far off do you think we are in Japan from having our relationships recognized by the law?

Otsuji-san: Again, I think that presenting propositions for laws and debating them in the legislatures is a good way for society to move forward on these issues.

Yamashita-san: Yes, the law is very important. But even more important are the facts in the world. The law is there to help resolve conflicts that arise between those facts, such as the reality of same-sex couples and the denial of spousal benefits. You take the facts at hand and look for a rational solution to the problems they give rise to.

Otsuji-san: Of course, gay marriage is now being recognized in the U.S. and a lot of other places, but the legal system in Japan is very different. Gay marriage is not a pressing issue in Japan. As Yamashita-san said, you have to start with the facts at hand. I haven’t heard of any cases in Japan of people taking their employers to court to extend spousal benefits, but that is worth doing.

Yamashita-san: Actually, there was a legal decision made last year where a non-traditional couple [an unmarried man and woman living together who were actually blood relations - uncle and niece] fought for the right to pass on their pensions to one another. The court approved it, but the national government intervened and stopped it. Then it went to the Supreme Court, which later approved it again. So this is a non-traditional couple being granted the same right as a heterosexual married couple. In the court case, they had to break down their daily life in great detail [i.e. to show that they were living in a manner comparable to that of a couple]. So, in my opinion, the system can change – sometimes quickly – and is likely to change in the coming years.

Otsuji-san: I feel like it was really good for me to see this film and see what is happening with gays in other parts of the world. The people of that community didn’t want to let Laurel die in despair. They all had hope. We look at the world around us and we may be tempted to see the situation as hopeless and want to give up. But we really don’t know how much opportunity there is for change unless we push for it. So for me the question is how we can use our hope and build something with it.

Yamashita-san: I wish this was a world in which I could just make a law and change things, but it’s not that easy. Going to court, however, is very powerful, and a very legitimate way of making change. Maybe you are not sure what kind of lawyer to go to with these issues. So, if I can promote myself and the team of lawyers I work with a little, we are all ready to use out wits and our knowledge to push the agenda forward on these issues.

Ari-san: So if you have any problems, please call him! (laughter)

As both Yamashita-san’s example and the film ‘Freeheld’ show, same-sex couples are held to a double-standard when it comes to proving the legitimacy of our relationships. Whereas any unmarried heterosexual couple in the situation of Laurel and Stacie could simply go out and get married, and no one would question the surviving partner’s entitlement to the other’s pension, same-sex couples have to anatomize their relationships in court to prove that they are in stable, committed partnerships that are marriage-like. In fact, what they are being asked to show is not that they have a ‘normal’ relationship, but that they have achieved an ideal of mutual support and companionship that would put many heterosexual couples to shame – and Laurel and Stacie certainly succeed in doing that.