TV | Wide Angle

'Queer Eye' takes a peek at Japan

by Alyssa I. Smith

Staff Writer

When Netflix announced earlier this year that the stars of “Queer Eye” would be crossing the Pacific for a special season of their feel-good reality TV show, the excitement was hard to contain. After four seasons of watching the show’s stars (the Fab Five) lift people (“heroes”) out of their respective ruts with life makeovers in the U.S., I was eager to see the quintet work its magic in Japan while exploring the streets of Tokyo. But my enthusiasm came with some reservations.

Recent Netflix shows such as “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo” and “Terrace House” have done wonders to bring Japanese sensibilities to international audiences, but I worried that the “Queer Eye” stars, who proudly espouse Western ideas of self-expression, self-love and open communication, would clash with Japanese social norms. Now, having binged “Queer Eye: We’re in Japan!” I realize I needn’t have worried.

The show sees model Kiko Mizuhara tag along with the stars as their Tokyo guide. Though her scenes of providing context are brief, her explanations help shine a light on the expectations and pressures of Japanese society. Take the first episode, “Japanese Holiday.” The subject is Yoko Sakuma, a 57-year-old hospice nurse who has dedicated her entire life and home to taking care of others. Thanks to Mizuhara, the audience is taught the term “onna o suteru,” which means to give up on being a woman. By learning that her situation is so prevalent there’s a term for it, the Fab Five are able to help her while not pushing back against cultural norms.

The second and third episodes bring in Japanese personalities known for their activism — plus-size star Naomi Watanabe, who advocates for body positivity, and Kodo Nishimura, a makeup artist, LGBTQ activtist and practicing monk. The former advises a young woman with self-esteem issues while the latter helps a young man struggling to go public with his homosexuality. Watanabe and Nishimura both serve as local examples that embracing your individuality and being accepted for who you are don’t have to be mutually exclusive. In addition, interactions like these balance out moments where the stars veer into their non-Japanese approaches to realizing a fulfilling life, such as when Jonathan Van Ness emphatically talks about “living in your truth” and radical self-love while cutting a hero’s hair.

The four-episode season ends with “Bringing Sexy Back,” in which the hosts coax an inhibited husband into communicating better with his wife of almost seven years. Here we see our experts the most out of their element, almost baffled by the couple being unable to say they love each other, let alone be physical or go on a date. And yet, as we’ve come to expect with every “Queer Eye” episode, there’s an emotional breakthrough, culminating in the hero breaking out of his shell, thanks to the help of the Fab Five.

It’s a bold move to take a hit show to a different country, but in this case it works and I’m excited to see where “Queer Eye” will go next.