To say that Japan’s history with human sexuality is complicated would be an understatement. While every culture has some idiosyncrasies in how it deals with gender and sexuality, Japan may have some of the most interesting historical transformations in sexual mores and taboos. Take the Bishōnen, for example, which literally translates in English to “beautiful young boy”. The Bishōnen were the predecessor to the androgynous glam rockers here in America, like Bowie or Reed. The Bishōnen were considered to transcend gender. In many ways, those who identified as Bishōnen were much alike what we now refer to as transgender, or perhaps more correctly gender-fluid.
This open-minded view on sexuality was widespread. Despite its roots, ancient Japanese culture did not adopt the Confucian view of marriage that was the norm in most Asian cultures. Monogamy in marriage was not expected. As well, homosexuality and bisexuality were far less frowned upon than in most of the world. As recently as in the post WWII era known as the “Japanese Post-War Economic Miracle”, prostitution was a thriving business. In fact, during this era visiting a prostitute could actually be tax-deductible in many cases. Anti-prostitution laws only ban intercourse when explicitly exchanged for money. It remains common practice to exercise all of the loopholes in the law in order to practice legal “prostitution”.
But in recent history, things have changed. 21st century Japan has seen a decrease in sexual appetite, decrease in birthrates, and increase in conservative sexual beliefs. And, while even with the conservative push evident in the past 15-20 years there remains a greater level of acceptance to various forms of sexuality in Japan than many places in this world, there has been an undercurrent that was strong even in Japan’s most sexually accepting days and remains pervasive to this day: Homosexuality is frowned upon throughout Japanese culture. Sexual orientation does not define a single protected class in discrimination laws in Japan, meaning that the idea of the type of “hate crime” legislation we have in America is a foreign concept. Moreover, legal protections such as property rights do not exist and same sex marriage is not legal. Civil rights for homosexual or transgender men and women are almost never discussed in the public forum and no political party has taken a stance to fight for these rights to date. All of the small strides made towards change have occurred in just the past few years and there is still a long, long way to go.
With this backdrop in mind, the 1999 rock and roll zombie film Wild Zero, a film that is a fun action horror romp with a great soundtrack on its surface, was released to a rabid horror audience that was used to a much different type of horror in the years prior. While this fun exterior alone is worth the price of admission, the film was and remains a subversive piece of art with an important message. The basic plot follows a young rockabilly punk named Ace, who is diverted from his trek to see his favorite band Guitar Wolf (the actual name of the Japanese garage rock band whose style is akin to The Ramones with the same irreverent punk vibe) by a beautiful damsel in distress and hordes of ghouls created by a race of aliens in order to destroy the world. There is a ton of blood and guts, a number of fantastic fast-paced action scenes, and Guitar Wolf’s perfect musical backdrop. The film is a tight 98 minutes of fun and excitement.
But there’s also an important subplot that tells a vital lesson about the purity of love and the importance of opening one’s mind; and that lesson is taught in the form of Ace’s developing relationship with the aforementioned damsel in distress. Her name is Tobio and she is a beautiful young lass. From the first moment we meet her at a gas station, Ace is smitten. He saves her from a situation at the gas station almost immediately. And, while he does bid her adieu to head on back to his journey, the moment he encounters the zombie creatures, he returns to save her.
As the film progresses, the members of Guitar Wolf join in the battle as the masses of zombies grow and continue to attack. And in the midst of all of the awesomeness filling the screen, Ace becomes privy to the fact that his beloved Tobio is not the woman he thought she was. In fact, she’s not technically a woman at all. Whether Tobio is an effeminate male similar to Bishōnen, transgender, or defined in some other way altogether isn’t clear, but it is clear that Tobio has a penis. This moment feels campy and cheeky at first, but what the spirit of Guitar Wolf (frontman of Guitar Wolf) says to Ace during his initial freakout about his discovery turns this moment into the subversive and transgressive link that make the punk rock look and sound of the film progress into a true punk rock message.
To some, punk rock is about fucking up the system. To others, punk rock is all about embracing the DIY ethos. And to many, punk rock is just a style of music and the associated fashion or lifestyle. My punk rock has always been about justice and doing what’s right… this is what leads to fucking up the system at times and embracing an ethos that refuses to let you compromise what you believe in. The music, fashion, and style are just how this it is expressed to the masses. And to this end, Guitar Wolf’s message to Ace is pure punk rock. In essence, what Guitar Wolf is saying here is: “Fuck what this culture thinks. Fuck what this world thinks. You go ahead and love whom you love and tell anyone standing in your way to ‘Fuck off!’ Gender is a construct. We’re all people and we can’t compromise what we feel in order to fall into some mold that we’re supposed to fit in according to the societal norms of our day.”
The message here is to be honest to love and honest to yourself. And what is more punk rock than being exactly who you are and not conforming no matter what people think?