Japan is a nation of contradictions. It’s looked upon by the wider world for its technological innovations and violent, taboo breaking contributions to pop culture, yet in reality, many of its citizens are often stifled by the archaic laws binding their conservative society. Fumi and Kazu, the subjects of Hikaru Toda’s documentary Of Love & Law (愛と法), know this all too well. They are the first openly gay couple to establish a law firm in Japan, and with regressive laws in the country stopping them making their partnership official, they’ve taken it upon themselves to help other outsiders who are vocal in their fight against societal norms.
Although Toda depicts the quiet tenderness of their relationship and their dedication to both the legal profession and raising awareness of LGBT rights in a country still baffled by the concept, this isn’t a film about the central couple’s struggle, so much as it’s a document of the struggles faced by all outsiders in Japan. Using a small handful of case studies mined from Fumi and Kazu’s clients, we are given a damning illustration of a country so shackled by conservative traditions it can hinder freedom of expression at will, and deny individuals their right to exist if they’re not born into a conventional family structure. Toda’s film manages to find some silver linings in this Kafkaesque nightmare, depicting the various fights for equality and individuality at their most hopeless without losing the optimistic mindset that progress is firmly in sight, as long as we keep fighting.
The pair choose clients that mainstream law firms wouldn’t dream of representing. Here, the main focus is firmly on Rokudenashiko, a “Vagina artist” who has been sued by the police for obscenity, due to a number of intricately designed vagina sculptures and a crowd funded vagina canoe. Her works are clearly designed to be comedic, and despite the gynaecological focus, still feel somewhat tame to a western audience. But in a country where a major subcategory of mainstream animation is intensely sexual, and multi storey department sex stores can be found in every big city, there’s something particularly baffling about an art project with such a lighthearted intention being rendered offensive. Similar freedom of expression contradictions are aired elsewhere, but here the ridiculousness is laid out most plainly; the couple are firmly established as the mouthpieces for common sense, even after they buy a sex toy on the high street to help their argument.
The other main client is a teacher who had been fired due to refusing to stand for the national anthem, something that she believes is a constitutional right in any democratic society. Likely due to parallels with the Colin Kaepernick case in the US, this isn’t given a similarly extensive focus within the documentary due to a certain air of familiarity. But whereas the other case studies are culturally specific, this is the easiest for an international audience to grasp, while still offering an intriguing example of the everyday cases Fumi and Kazu deal with, separate from the quirkier battle that gets a more in-depth focus.
In the film’s later stages, they take on an even bigger battle against the state, and a truly draconian law that denies people rights just for being born outside of a strictly defined family structure. This is a law that will likely confound many international viewers, to whom this will be breaking news – a different kind of humanitarian crisis to the ones we normally see reported, but one that still feels particularly depressing when seen enacted in a developed nation.
The film opens with footage of an Osaka pride festival, where numerous attendees are filmed from the waist down asking not to be shown, as they are not comfortable with being publicly established as LGBTQ even if they’re out to their friends and family. Fumi and Kazu are the first couple we see without the need for censorious caution; they’re privileged enough to have a loving network of family and friends, so can be the rare gay couple in Japan to be public with their true identities and genuine affection, helping to normalise the concept within a conservative culture. They are a truly inspirational couple for the work they do to help marginalised individuals and communities both within their profession and outside of it, and for the sheer strength of their relationship.
Of Love & Law (愛と法) is an inspirational documentary that will leave you wanting to make the world a better place – even if it’s just to ensure everybody has a right to sail in a vagina shaped canoe.
All pictures reproduced courtesy of Hikaru Toda