JUSFC Meet Our Grantees Series: Graham Kolbeins – Writer, Designer, Film Maker

December 16, 2016 

Writer, designer and filmmaker Graham Kolbeins was named a recipient of the 2016 Creative Artist Exchange Fellowship and traveled to Japan in March for three-month residency. Kolbeins was based mostly in Tokyo, but traveled to Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe, Gunma and Okinawa to conduct interviews for his film, Queer Japan.

Queer Japan is an ensemble film that looks at people across the LGBT spectrum and beyond. Kolbeins’ goal was to interview a diverse group who identified as LGBT or other gender categories, and to share their stories of their triumphs and struggles being a sexual minority in Japan.

Kolbeins has worked with a variety of gay artists during the last five years. With his collaborator, Anne Ishii, he traveled to Japan in 2011 and interviewed nine gay manga artists for two books: The Passion of Gengoroh Tagame and Massive: Gay Erotic Manga and the Men Who Make It. Many of the comics were featured in English for the very first time. Publication and success led to a book tour that allowed Kolbeins to travel throughout North America and Japan.

Following that experience, Kolbeins was hungry to continue learning and researching the different expressions of gender and sexuality in Japan, in the present day as well as during the Edo (1603-1868) and Meiji (1868-1902) periods. He returned to Japan in October 2015 and created a pre-production trailer that served as the foundation for his film.

Certain aspects of Japanese society, such as familial obligations and expectation, make it difficult to be open and fully yourself, Kolbeins said. “It was sometimes difficult to approach people or discuss certain subjects because they were not completely comfortable about being out with their sexuality,” he recounted. “But I was really lucky to meet so many people who were willing to be open and honest, and to expose themselves on camera.”

He started with people he’d worked with before, including Gengoroh, and by the end of the interview process he’d conducted over 100 interviews!

“Every day was a learning experience, and that was the most exciting and enriching part about this fellowship,” he noted. “It gave me the opportunity to sit down with people, hear their stories, and learn more about where they were coming from.”

Kolbeins’ main focus now is to edit and finalize the film, which he expects to release by the end of 2017. His goal is to screen it at a variety of film festivals in Japan, the U.S.  and hopefully other countries. “The film is for a Japanese audience but I want it to be appreciated by people around the world,” he adds.

He also plans to release additional free content on social media, as not all 100 interviews will make the final cut. Eventually the project will include a book with interviews and photos, and will be shared across multiple platforms to reach more audiences.

Kolbeins’ advice to future grantees: “Make the most of every day you have in Japan and meet as many people as you can. You’ll learn so much more if you try to build your Japanese language skills. Try to have as much cultural exchange as possible.”

The Creative Artists Exchange fellowship is funded by the U.S. Japan Friendship Commission and administered in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts. If you are or know someone who might be interested in the U.S.-Japan Creative Artists Program, please visit our website for more information on the application process.


To learn more about Graham Kolbeins’ project, visit grahamkolbeins.com and follow Queer Japan on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram for updates.