Gaycation Series: Episode 1, Japan

April 3rd, 2016

gaycation1When actress Ellen Page came out as a lesbian in 2014, I barely noticed. Movie celebrities are pretty far outside my sphere of interest, except as a retweet on a slow day. (and, frankly, I often forget that celebrities coming out is still a thing for some people. “zOMG so-and-so is gay?!?” over some celebrity/actor/singer is so 2000.

But Ellen Page has been pretty outspoken about gay rights and has braved some pretty toxic people to be so, and I give her props for that.  She’s also created a mini-series for Viceland called Gaycation, in which she and her friend Ian travel to various places around the world, meeting gay folks and talking to people about gay culture in their countries – and facing any number of homophobic elements head on.

While working on my alt-manga lecture (this Thursday at Baruch college!), the lecture organizer asked me if I had seen this series. I’d caught like half an episode, but I thought I’d really sit down and watch Episode 1, in which Ellen and Ian go to Japan.

There is both good and not-so-good in this episode. Unfortunately, there’s a bit of the Western “zOMG wacky Japan!” mentality, which means we spend more time than I’d personally like at niche-y things.

A good chunk of the segment is a visit to a Newhalf club, in which they sort of lump that in with trans life uncritically, rather than discussing the possible place it might have for people who might, maybe, one day come out as trans, or did and this was a stop in the process, or that many of the men aren’t trans  and for them that this is fetish or fantasy without any implicit trans identity.

They visit a Buddhist temple that holds (not legally valid) same-sex marriage ritual. In a moment of supreme western indulgence, they go through one, as if that would give them insight into what it would mean to an actual gay couple. I found this segment tone-deaf, orientalist and embarrassing.

Another thing they do is listening to a BL Drama CD with straight fujoshi, and they are present when a guy “rents a friend” to be there when he comes out to his mother. This is moving, but again, weirdly voyeuristic, as they aren’t really there for any reason. If they wanted this to have context and meaning they should have talked to the guy, rather than about him.

These segments fill up more time than talking to actual LGBTQ people, although they do do that as well. They mention BL manga, but again, not with the subtlety one might wish, or the recognition of Bara or GL (which I am using here to indicate moe and mainstreamed f/f manga, not gay, per se) or Yuri (by gay women, as Bara is by gay men.) Ellen and Ian have some valid thoughts around the exploitation of gay men’s sexuality in BL, but not enough depth of recognition to really give it context and they never mention Yuri, so we can only guess what they might see if they saw that.

In Shinjuku Ni-choume, they visit a long-standing gay bar and another long-lasting lesbian bar. Here, at least, we get some insight to gay life from gays and lesbians. Also, a shout-out to Tokyo Bois! Yuki Keiser, who was their guide for this segment.)

The end of the episode very briefly covers the baby steps in same-sex couple recognition in Shibuya, and in visibility with the gay pride parade. I kind of wish I could take Ellen and Ian around myself to see some of the things that they missed. ^_^ Gosh, they forgot to watch a Takarazuka show. /eyeroll/

It’s worth watching if only to see what Japan *still* looks like from the outside. And it reminds me how important first-person narratives by Japanese gay people, as in Lesbian-teki Kekkon Seikatsu and Coming Out Letters, is. These are the real stories of the real struggles. Ellen and Ian’s whirlwind tour is practically a flyover.


Overall – I’m really on the fence about this. It was enjoyable, but the more I think about it, the more things I don’t care for about it. Let’s say a 5. Maybe it had good intent, but it got lost in the need to be entertaining and the wallowing in wacky Japan.

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8 Responses

  1. Liz says:

    I was bummed that they never brought up Yuri at all. If they met with a Bara or Yuri manga-ka and talked to them about their work, that would have been really interesting. It did feel like “Japan is so strange” for a bit.

    • Yeah. I would have much preferred an episode of them talking to LGBTQ people and seeing gay culture through their eyes, rather than talking to straight folks about it.

  2. Jenny says:

    Maybe I’m alone, but I see being out not as a single event, but as an ongoing thing. It’s simple to just let people have their expectations, and not challenge them. And most of the time, I do… but that means that often, at some point, I have to mention that their expectations are wrong. And living in The South, that’s hazardous every time I do it.

  3. Stacy L says:

    Failure to even mention Takarazuka or yuri alone makes this episode of Gaycation a disappointment. As a fan of Ellen Page there’s no way I wasn’t going to watch this series, even though I knew going in that it would probably take this too shallow approach. And indeed my heart sank when it started on the wacky Japan clichés. At least no one said, “Japan, a nation of contrasts…”, over shots of the bullet train, geisha, Mt Fuji and Shibuya Crossing. The bits of Page and Daniel reading yaoi with tittering were embarrassing. I wonder how much was their editorial choices and how much was producers insisting that stuff be in there.

    Can’t disagree with a word of your review. The most interesting parts were glossed over while footnote material was given major screentime. Why you would spend a second talking to straight people in a show explicitly about the challenges of LGBT life is baffling.

    The show wouldn’t have the profile it does without Page being frequently on-camera. As much as I adore her I’d prefer the kind of approach Kim Longinotto takes with her documentaries, not being on camera and no voiceover. Let the subjects speak for themselves.

    Speaking of which, have you seen Longinotto’s 1995 doco Shinjuku Boys? It might be 21 years old now but at least it does what Gaycation doesn’t do and consists entirely of various actual Japanese LGBT folks in their day-to-day lives speaking for themselves, with no filtering through American (or Canadian) eyes.

    Despite any criticisms, I still applaud that the show exists. This was an interesting interview with Page and Daniel about the series:

    • I’m not at all familiar with Longinotto’s work, thanks for the prompt. This made me think of Funeral Parade of Roses a bit, with the zOMG so weird vibe, but also felt like Page was struggling to understand something that she didn’t quite understand what part she was missing.

      • Stacy L says:

        It was a while ago now (2007), but you reviewed Longinotto’s Takarazuka documentary Dream Girls.

        All of Shinjuku Boys is on YouTube, but the region 2 DVD is still available on Amazon UK. The DVD also has a great doco about Japanese female wrestlers, Gaea Girls. Both highly recommended.

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