Hidden Gems - Queer Eye Japan

Updated: Mar 13, 2020

Photo: Ken Wang

Sunset is now occurring before 4pm, the temperature has plummeted in recent weeks and there are very clear and evident signs we are on a bullet train whose destination is the 25th December.

It’s almost as if the notion of changing time, with the clocks going back to at the end of October (for those based in the UK & USA), suddenly awakens a booming countdown in our collective subconscious. Everyone you’ve ever met in your life, without fail, suddenly decides ‘we must catch up before the year ends!’ You quickly realise those new year resolutions set way back in January, the career review you did over the summer, and goals you put in place in September (a time for new beginnings… apparently) are all going to have to be achieved within a window of about four weeks. And a review of your finances indicates you are going to have to put a lot of creative thought into Christmas presents for your clan.

But this year, without warning and out of of nowhere, five celestial beings slayed from stage left! Queer Eye Japan appeared on Netflix, momentarily slowing time, softening the darkness and warming my heart!

Image: Netflix

Before I launch into the beacon of light in which the Japanese based QE shone onto these cold and heavy days, I do want to acknowledge that whilst Queer Eye is fantastic at placing ‘queerness’ centre stage on mainstream TV, it doesn’t come close to representing the vast spectrum of the LGBTQI community. Netflix could have been – and perhaps missed an opportunity to be – more diverse with who made up the Fab 5 (Netflix, if you are reading, can I suggest a series of spin-off shows with alternative Fab 5s…please?). I’m not alone in my opinion here - there is plenty on the internet if you would like to read more surrounding this diversity point.

For those unfamiliar with the show - five gay men (aka the Fab 5) arrive, all with a chief talent, and within one week make over a person’s life. Antoni covers food and wine. Tan is responsible for style and fashion. Jonathan whips your hair and beauty routine into shape. Bobbi is a design miracle worker, transforming people’s living quarters within four short days and Karamo, who is responsible for ‘culture' helps you see and acknowledge your limiting behaviours and build your confidence and mental well being.

Japan, a culture renowned culturally for being polite, private and reserved was not an obvious country for Queer Eye to pitch up in. I was so touched by how much each guest overcame, (and not without genuine fear) the constraints of societal expectations and cultural ‘norms’. Each episode gifted me love and something to take away which I am going to share here.

**Spoiler spoiler alert - if you haven’t seen the series and think it might be for you, what is detailed below is popping at the gills with spoilers!

Take care of yourself!

In episode 1 we are introduced to Yoko - a nurse who self confessed ‘she has abandoned being a woman’.

Yoko. Image: Netflix

Yoko has created a hospice in her home, as a result of her sister’s death. She emotionally recounts that her sister died alone in hospital from pancreatic cancer. Yoko cares for people at the end of their lives - providing them with a homely environment and dignity. She has however, neglected herself as a result. She has no self care routine: she baths every other day, wears hats to cover her messy hair and she often sleeps on the floor, giving up her bed for a patient.

What’s beautiful about Yoko is that she’s so fun and open to all that the Fab 5 throw at her. Yet, despite her jovial nature, she thinks deeply about what each one says to her.

There are so many favourite moments in this episode but the following two struck a chord with me.

Antoni takes Yoko to a small bakery and they make apple pie together. Single for over ten years, Yoko completely plays up the ‘date’ element of their time together in which Antoni responds: they feed each other cake, look in to each other’s eyes and cuddle, it is a genuine interaction in an overly fabricated situation momentarily collapsing differences in gender, sexuality, age, culture, race - it is kind and gentle.

Date night. Image: Netflix

The episode wraps up with Yoko inviting members of the local community and friends (some who do not recognise her owing to Tan’s styling and Jonathan’s handiwork taming her locks) to the showcase the hospice. She does a small speech that opens with; ‘it is kind of embarrassing to talk about this with everyone here! But I’m nearly 60 and I didn’t think caring about myself or being confident about myself - I thought that was ok [not to care]! But the Fab 5 showed me the importance of having confidence and understanding my value and it is a right to become happy!’

Like Yourself… Love Yourself

In the following episode we are introduced to Kan. A gay man living in Japan suffering anxiety and sometimes panic attacks about reactions to his sexuality within mainstream culture.

Having previously moved abroad to Canada and the UK to study, he had lived a more open and relaxed version of himself but since returning to Japan he hides himself away to avoid controversy.

Kan is a gentle person whose society has manifested his shyness. With a British boyfriend living in London you can see he feels lost - unable to relax in his native country and connected to another he is unable to live in.

Kan. Image: Netflix

This episode is an emotional rollercoaster and for me personally there are some slightly problematic moments of cultural perspective and western projection of what it means ‘out & proud’ but Kan, somewhat hesitantly, was up for the ride.

The crux of the whole episode hinges on a vulnerable moment where Karamo takes Kan to a park. They sit in a cafe discussing the daily stress of existing in a culture that is at odds with your sense of self. Enter Kodo, We see a serene figure float from the background of the frame and arrive at a table with effortless grace. Kodo is gay, a Buddhist Monk, and makeup artist. Having lived in NYC for a period to study art, he shares his journey and getting to ‘know himself’ while abroad. From experimenting with makeup, to venturing out in high-heels and being shouted – but then affirmed – by a complete stranger. Leaving New York and returning to Japan to train as a monk, he asked his master ‘is it ok that I wear heels and make-up?’ The response: ‘if it helps you spread the message of equality, then I think it is ok’.

It is here the pain in which Kan is coiled begins unravelling! Weeping, worlds tumble out and to paraphrase he says: ‘when people say bad things to me, I feel like everything I’ve built crumbles in an instant. I don’t know what to do with myself anymore!’ His sexuality and important parts of his personality are stifled by social expectation in Japan and his race discriminated by the gay community in the UK. It makes for heart-aching, gut-wrenching viewing.

Slightest of gestures. Image: Netflix

It’s in this moment that the slightest of gestures ruptures the cheesy, feel good format as Karamo and Kodo take Kan’s hands. This is the junction of where ‘being out and proud’ intersects with the long, taxing and ongoing fight of both social and self acceptance. Karamo (who does seem to be caught slightly off guard by the very rawness of the situation) and Kodo have both experienced the exact same forms of discrimination and no doubt still do, but have managed to fight and claw and carve out space for themselves and their truth. The three men holding hands is nothing and everything - a momentary sign of affection charged with love and support that transcends time and place.

Karamo reacts: ‘you don’t deserve to experience that but those things you are saying, I’ve experienced that too. But I have to tell myself, someone may not like me but I like myself, I love myself. These were gifts that you were given - these are gifts we were all given - and when you start to accept those gifts is when you start to realise that, no matter where you are in the world, you can be happy.’

Creativity Takes Courage

‘Creativity takes courage' is a quote attributed to Henri Matisse and is flashed on screen as part of an interstitial during episode 3. I do like thinking about how would one explain to Matisse, at the point in time he made this statement, how its relevance would surface and be used on a streaming service, in a series called Queer Eye Japan, in 2019. However, the focus of this episode is connected to a tale as old as time - mother / daughter relationships - and this one is fraught.

Kae, a manga artist, is 23, living at home and believes nothing she does is good enough for her mother. It is evident that her mother, a strong personality, does like her daughter. But boy, can she nit-pick! Kae was bullied at school and, combined with the lack of emotional support at home, struggles to like anything about herself, the only thing she rates is her drawings - all of which tend to be of an idealised body type - not her own.

The Fab 5 swoop in and the attention and affection she receives within minutes of their arrival has Kae in tears, stating: ‘I keep thinking this is a dream, I’ve never been comforted like this before!’

Kae: 'I keep thinking this is a dream'. Image: Netflix

We witness her growth almost minute-by-minute as she spends time with each member throughout the week. But with a move that is is beyond genius, the show drops in the bombshell that is Naomi Watanabe, a social media star who is mega in Japan. With over 9 million Instagram followers, she’s a regular on the country’s primetime TV shows and has her own clothing brand. Naomi is hilarious, kind, open, and supportive and you could literally see the ‘confidence’ lightbulb moment for Kae as a result of their interaction.

I’m not sure the reasons why Naomi Watanabe isn’t a feature on all the QE Japan episodes as she is TV gold? I was left wanting more and as a result she has become my latest obsession. A slight diversion, I strongly encourage you go see what she’s up to via YouTube, though I’m including this fantastic version of Beyonce’s Crazy In Love she did for Japanese TV because… well, just watch and see.

Working around the mother / daughter relationship, we have an uncomfortable moment as Antoni takes on the role of an earnest counsellor for Kae and her mother, relating their dynamic to his fractious experiences with his own parents. Despite the awkwardness, Kae’s mother does reflect that she perhaps has neglected to acknowledge her own daughter’s struggles and pain and extends an olive branch, breaking a ‘socially embarrassing’ taboo by telling her daughter she loves her.

The point in which I reached for another box of tissues was Kae’s reaction to Bobbi’s transformation of the room she shares with her sister. To say he worked miracles is an understatement. In the style of Grand Budapest Hotel (Kae is a fan of Wes Anderson) every inch of the tiny room was maximised for creativity and was an artwork in its own right. Kae screams and then sobs and sobs and sobs. Suddenly she find herself in a space that reflects her, supports her creativity and is beautiful.

Creativity takes courage. Image: Netflix

What Could Be

In what some multi-million dollar Hollywood rom-coms try and yet fail to achieve, this final episode punches way above expectations with its portrayal of the struggles in finding and knowing what love is.

Makato, a radio director, is shy and introverted. He met his wife, Yasuko, seven years ago. They quickly got married, but the last four years have been without any form of intimacy.

We get a glimpse in the opening of this episode that Makato has a quirkiness about him, as he states that his hopes for the week are: ‘to go from a rock to psychedelic flower.’ He confesses that his existence is metered by ‘trying not be noticed’ and yet when given a platform he is charming and open. That said, with long, drawn out pauses, he struggles when conversation steers towards emotionality, confessing to Karamo that as a result of the whirlwind marriage ‘he doesn’t really understand what love is!’

Psychedelic flower: Makato. Image: Netflix

After learning how to cook omurice in the kitchen with Antoni, he heads off clothes shopping with Tan and it is here we see Makato’s anxiety manifest as he is paralysed by any form of decision making that expresses his identity. Tan encourages him to select items that appeal to him. It’s painful to watch because it is clear we are watching an ‘edited’ version of how long it is actually taking. Contrary to expectations, though, he eventually selects a bright pink shirt - much to Tan’s surprise. This very simple act seems to punch a hole in the hermetically-sealed world which Makato has built around himself. Trying on more clothes he becomes bolder and the conversation drifts to his marriage and the distance he puts between himself and Yasuko, by thinking of her as his sibling. To his credit, Tan hides his wince behind an almost poker face before wrapping up the clothes shopping and taking Makato for a coffee to discuss things further. With respect, Tan kindly reproaches Makato, suggesting that she needs to fight for himself and for his marriage and he has to talk to Yasuko if he wants to continue in the relationship.’ Confessing that, ‘he loves his wife and she is everything to him’ we witness the weight and the realisation that Makato is going to have to ask her directly if she feels the same! Is this makeover going to end in a break up?

In what must have been some serious shuffling by the Fab 5 and the show’s producers (I could be being naive here!), the next day kicks off with Karamo bringing the couple together for some yoga with Jonathan before facilitating the conversation around the state of their marriage.

Sexual healing. Image: Netflix

Makato ask’s Yasuko ‘do you still love me?’ She sits in silence, bows her head as a lone tear rolls down her cheek and off her chin. A literal knife-edge oh-shit-this-is-going-to-be-bad! TV moment.

After what feels like a slightly overplayed TV silence, she nods and says ‘I love you but… I’ve always worried whether or not you regret marrying me as I don’t cook and I’m not good at housework. I’ve always felt sorry for not being a good wife!’ Makato responds with ‘to be honest cooking and housework don’t really matter to me, I don’t care about you being a good wife either. I am saved by the fact you exist. Just you existing in my life gives me power to be like superman!’ I myself… really love you.’ I mean this is a guy who tries to hide from everyone and then delivers that to his wife with the cutest of smiles which results in her diving in for a hug. It is genuine moment, that gets a whole heap more real when Makato realises his worst fear didn’t happen and it hits him hard. Struggling to speak, Karamo ushers him out of the room where we hear his wailing before we witness him being held by Karamo as he sobs. Real romance! And yes, generated a few more tears on my part.

From hereon it is feel good all the way. Makato settles in to what could be, being open to explore his own identity and how to connect with his wife. Makeover complete, he pleasantly shocks Yasuko with his new clothes and haircut. They go on a date, he cooks for her and puts on the table the importance of communication and planning their future together. What is beautiful is, that they genuinely were into each other.

So as the year comes to a close, I will be reflecting on: taking care of myself, a little more self-love, pushing beyond my creative comfort zone and thinking of what can be for the coming year. Thank you Queer Eye.

Who would have thought a camp, light entertainment series could be so profound?

#queereyejapan #2019reflections #hiddengems #greaterthanelevenpercent

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