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Pop Culturing: Visiting Japan Gives 'Queer Eye' a Needed Makeover

by Jason St. Amand

National News Editor

Sunday November 10, 2019

From left to right: Tan France, Karamo Brown, Kiko Mizuhara, Jonathan Van Ness, Bobby Berk, Antoni Porowski in "Queer Eye: We're in Japan!"
From left to right: Tan France, Karamo Brown, Kiko Mizuhara, Jonathan Van Ness, Bobby Berk, Antoni Porowski in "Queer Eye: We're in Japan!"  (Source:Bruce Yamakawa/Netflix)

In over a year-and-a-half, the new iteration of "Queer Eye" has become somewhat of a phenomenon with the Netflix reality show going on to release four seasons in a short time. Over 33 episodes, the Fab Five have burrowed their way into pop culture, becoming memes, launching catchphrases, earning Emmys and goodwill for their comfort food equivalent of feel-good TV. At its best, "Queer Eye" has been a moving and powerful sentiment about queerness and at its worst, the reality show has come off as cloying and a bit problematic.

Not to mention "Queer Eye" can grow stale, following the same formula again and again. The show has proven to be a great improvement over its original, however, which aired in the early 00s and had its Fab Five only makeover straight dudes in New York City. The new and diverse Fab Five (Antoni Porowski, Tan France, Karamo Brown, Bobby Berk, and Jonathan Van Ness) now primarily help out the lives of folks living in the Heartland and the South, visiting not just straight guys but also women and queer people who need a fabulous kick in the pants, words of wisdom and a fresh makeover.

From left to right: Antoni Porowski, Karamo Brown, Jonathan Van Ness, Bobby Berk, Tan France in "Queer Eye: We're in Japan!" Photo credit: Kelli Falls/Netflix

On Friday, "Queer Eye: We're in Japan" hits Netflix. It is being called a "mini-season," containing just four episodes that each clock in around 45 minutes. It's also the best the show has been since it first debuted in 2018. Part of the fun of this version of "Queer Eye" has been its fish-out-of-water story. Watching the metropolitan Fab Five visit a farm, a small church community or a rural summer camp and acclimate to their surroundings has always proven to be a fun watch. And that's still the case when they visit Tokyo. But they're not totally on their own; the Fab Five get guidance from model and actress Kiko Mizuhara. She's often on hand to help the Fab Five understand Japanese culture or translate a Japanese phrase.

What's most interesting is how the Fab Five interpret Japanese culture and customs and put them back on residents of Tokyo. Most notably, Karamo, the culture expert, takes a bit of a step back this season, inviting local celebrates to offer advice. Most notably, this comes in the second episode "Crazy in Love" where Kan, a young gay man, is struggling to be out and proud in Tokyo. Kan explains that when he's studied abroad in Canada and in London, where he met his boyfriend Tom, he feels like he can be himself. But returning to Japan, he's feeling stifled by the country's attitude towards homosexuality. During a warm chat, Karamo surprises Kan with an appearance by Kodo Nishimura, a Japanese monk who made headlines for being an openly gay makeup artist. He explains to Kan that he studied art in America where he discovered makeup and the power it has to make him feel more confident. After discussing how being his true and authentic self makes him feel, his head monk said he's OK with the duality; allowing him to be both a devout monk and an enthusiastic gender-bending makeup artist. Elsewhere in the episode, the other Fab Five members help Kan with his L.T.L.D.R. (long-term; long-distance relationship), with Antoni encouraging him to make home-cooked meals when Tom comes to visit.

Bobby Berk, left, and Kan in "Queer Eye: We're in Japan!" Photo credit: Bruce Yamakawa/Netflix

In the third episode "The Ideal Woman," Karamo welcomes comedian Naomi Watanabe, who offers words of encouragement to Kae, a young woman and manga artist struggling with self-acceptance especially when it comes to her body. He also urges her to draw a self-portrait of her entire body in order to break through her idea of the perfect female body; something she's drawn in the past for her manga. But the most emotional episode is the season's first, "Japanese Holiday," where the Fab Five plus Kiko visit Yoko, a caring and sweet hospice nurse who says she's given up on "being a woman." It's a lovely episode that digs deep into Yoko's past and trauma but, of course, has a happy ending.

This isn't the first time "Queer Eye" has venture outside the United States. There's a one-off special where the Fab Five visit Yass, Australia. But "We're in Japan!" is an interesting culture shock for all members of the Fab Five. Antoni attempts to make mapo tofu. Tan is often adding pops of bright color to wardrobes. Jonathan is jealous of their hair. And poor Bobby, who still gets the least amount of screen time, transforms small apartments into stunning and useful living spaces.

"Queer Eye: We're in Japan!" is mostly a success and the show would be wise to keep up with small seasons (though a fifth season of the show is set to air sometime in 2020), especially seasons that are filmed out of the country. Watching the Fab Five learn about other cultures is just as fun watching them offer life advice to folks back at home.

Pop Culturing

This story is part of our special report titled Pop Culturing. Want to read more? Here's the full list.

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