Ignorant stereotypes suggest that Japan is a strange, futuristic utopia populated by anime-obsessed businessmen, but in reality, the Land of the Rising Sun is like any other country, full of diverse people who live and love and strive to be happy. Unfortunately, these differences aren’t always celebrated.
There’s a common phrase in Japan known as kūki o yomu, or “reading the air,” which describes how people are taught early on to assess social situations and conform accordingly. Those who refuse to do so are often ostracized and in the most extreme cases, marginalized and left to fight for their civil rights, despite how advanced their society is as a whole.
Director Hikaru Toda brings some much-needed attention to the struggles of marginalized people in Japan who are still forced to fight for their civil rights in her latest documentary, Of Love & Law, which follows two Japanese lawyers who fight for change in Osaka. The concepts of love and law might seem like strange bedfellows, but it’s love that these men are fighting for, both in the legal battles they face on behalf of their clients and also within their own personal lives, too.
As the first openly gay practitioners of law in Japan, Kazuyuki Minami (Kazu) and Masafumi Yoshida (Fumi) are marginalized in their fight to foster a child of their own. Because of this, they’re perfectly equipped to take on the kind of cases that traditional lawyers might avoid while also highlighting the wider struggles that disenfranchised individuals contend with in contemporary Japan.
One particularly shocking case involves two “unregistered” women who are still denied any kind of legal recognition by the state simply because they were born out of wedlock. Thousands are still affected by this draconian law, which prevents people from accessing healthcare, education, and even a passport for travel. Another client seeks help after she’s penalized for refusing to sing the national anthem at the school where she teaches.
However, it’s the first case that will probably stick with audiences the longest thanks to the bubbly persona of artist Megumi Igarashi and her striking “vagina art.” Better known as Rokudenashiko, the internationally renowned creator was famously drawn up on obscenity charges after she made a canoe modeled on her own vagina.
Her story is less somber than the others tackled in Of Love & Law, but it’s no less important. As Rokudenashiko states during her trial, “A vagina is not obscene to start with…not to me at least,” and it’s exactly these kinds of outdated ideals that Kazu and Fumi are fighting against.
Aside from one beautifully drawn animation sequence based on Rokudenashiko’s art, Of Love & Law isn’t particularly groundbreaking in form. That hardly matters though as the power of Toda’s material speaks for itself, much like it did in her last documentary, Love Hotel, which also sat back and let the story unfold with minimal interference.
In lesser hands, the heavy nature of these cases could have dragged the film down into an overly solemn affair, but Of Love & Law transcends its weighty subject matter thanks largely to the love shared between Fumi and Kazu.
Equally dedicated to each other and the crusades they fight, Fumi and Kazu are earnestly relatable throughout, even when they’re embroiled in the occasional squabble. By giving Toda unfettered access to their lives in and out of the office, the pair humanize the cases they tackle by living out their own lives honestly in front of the camera.
Of Love & Law is just as riveting when the pair discuss what to cook as it is when they stand up for what’s right in court. As they plan where a baby could fit in the apartment, you’ll want to just squeeze them both in joy and when Fumi speaks through tears about the death of his father, it will take all of your strength not to hug the screen and try to console him.
During an interview with The Japan Times, Toda revealed the pair were keen to show “how they lived, how normal they were, in a society where they’re considered abnormal,” and the film achieves this perhaps even better than they could have hoped for. With both respect and dignity, Of Love & Law provides heartfelt insight into the struggles many queer people still face while also reminding audiences that even first world countries can lag behind when it comes to establishing human rights for all.
Later on in the interview, Toda goes on to say that things might be getting worse for the disenfranchised citizens of Japan: “Everybody is ‘reading the air’ and it’s becoming harder and harder to be an individual, with their own freedom to think for themselves.”
If only Japanese legislation could also ‘read the air’ when it comes to human rights and start giving marginalized groups the legal entitlements they deserve.
Even though they’re working within a system that’s rigged against them, Fumi and Kazu’s enduring optimism for the future and the egalitarian power of justice should still give us hope. Love and law are intertwined in ways that Japanese society might not account for just yet, but it’s reassuring to know that there are people out there willing to fight by combining them both into one powerful force for good.
Of Love & Law is available to watch on demand.