Photos and Interview: The Night Is Still Young
Featured photos from The Night is Still Young by Tomoaki Hata, from Powerhouse Books. Pictured: C.Snatch Z. and Madame Bonjour JohnJ. Interview by Jai Arun Ravine
“The atmosphere evoked in these photographs no longer exists,” concludes Simone Fukayuki in a foreword to The Night Is Still Young, a book by Los Angeles-based, Japanese photographer Tomoaki Hata that documents gay nightlife and drag performance in Osaka from 1996 to 2004.
In an interview with The Advocate, Tomoaki says he “found an old Nikon SLR camera that had been thrown away in some bushes [along with a Korean passport]. With this camera, I took pictures of my grandfather, who passed away two weeks later.” Capturing the ephemeral quality of lived experience, as well as the ephemeral gestures of queer performance and queer desire, is what saturates and haunts this “night,” flickering at the cusp of a new temporality—still young yet already forgotten, already forgotten yet gloriously awake.
The photos featured here are of performers Madame Bonjour John J and Cono Snatch Zubobinskaya (or C.Snatch Z., also known as Noriko Sunayama or Norico Sunayama), who also performed with the OK Girls. Over email I interviewed Tomoaki Hata and C.Snatch Z. about the OK Girls and the Osaka drag performance scene documented in the book.
Jai Arun Ravine: What was the OK Girls’ relationship to the Osaka drag performance scene?
Tomoaki Hata: The OK Girls are an alternative side of the Japanese performing art group, Dumb Type. Dumb Type is one of the most successful media arts/performing arts groups from Japan, and Teiji Furuhashi, one of the founders of Dumb Type, also started his career as a drag queen in New York in the late 80s and then started the first drag queen party scene in Kyoto and Osaka tagged with another drag queen, Simone Fukayuki, the author of an essay for my book.
C.Snatch Z.: In Dumb Type we had directors in various fields, such as visual images, sound, fine arts, architecture and contemporary dance. We created one work with each director’s various ideas. A [cohesive] work was created each time. I belonged to them from 1990 until 2010. We toured all over the world. Teiji Furuhashi established the amazing drag queen party “Diamonds are Forever” in the Kansai area with Simone Fukayuki and Toru Yamanaka, who is a sound creator. That’s why me and other members related to that party easily. It was so exciting at that time.
TH: Teiji was also one of the earliest victims of HIV/AIDS in Japan. After making an announcement that he was infected with the HIV virus [in 1992], Dumb Type created a performance called “S/N.” You can check out some part of their performance on Youtube. The performance itself was a really strong statement about sex and sexuality, HIV, love and sex, and sometimes money. Teiji appeared as a drag queen on the stage as well as a gay man with HIV, which was really shocking at that time in Japan. Unfortunately Teiji died in 1995 just before the invention of cocktail treatment.
The OK Girls were formed with three female performers from Dumb Type, who were strongly influenced by the life and death of Teiji as well as some political issues around that time in Japan. So I believe the OK Girls and drag queens are sisters from the same mother—Teiji Furuhashi, also as know as Miss Glorious.
CSZ: After the performance of Dumb Type, Miss Glorious and three girl members had a lot of fans at several nightclubs in New York, London, Paris, Barcelona, etc. Then we founded the OK Girls. Nobody was lesbian. Is it a lesbian group? It was a question a lot. We didn’t like this. We wanted only to make something wonderful that had not been seen. Eventually, I also started up a new solo character called C.Snatch Z., who is a provocative lady character, and a drag king named SNACKY!
JAR: In looking at the images of C.Snatch Z. and the OK Girls, it seems that they are performing gender and sexuality in a way that differs from the drag queens featured in the book. Did audiences respond differently to the OK Girls’ performances than those of other drag queens?
TH: I am sure audiences liked both of them a lot, but one of the interesting things about the performances of Snatch and the OK Girls is that they cleverly put political thoughts in the performance and educated the audience at the club event, which was far from the site of political conversation.
JAR: In the book’s foreword, Simone Fukayuki states that the term “drag queen” has been translated to Japan through such movies as “Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.” How do you relate to the word “drag”? Do you think of your performances as drag?
CSZ: I am a kind of “drag king” and have performed since December 1995 as the character SNACKY! He participated in several womyns’ parties in Tokyo, Bangkok, Melbourne, etc., and it’s still going on! Day after tomorrow I’m going to perform for a ladies’ party in Nagoya. Only when I’m performing as SNACKY! do I think of my performance as drag. I am not a drag queen.
JAR: In these photographs I see that you are performing femininity and femme sexuality with a lot of excess and multiplicity of gender, as in the image of you with a chest plate and strap-on dildo, and another with drawn-on facial hair and lace-up go-go boots. What is your relationship to gender (femininity, masculinity, or other) and what draws you to extend and transform gender in performance?
CSZ: I had worked at S&M clubs for men and performed in fetish parties as C.Snatch Z. That’s why I wore dildos and other radical sex props. I feel always resentment to violence. I hate masculinity and macho people. On the other hand, I feel that I have a kind of penis inside.
Regarding the performance in which I wear a red rubber body and dildo, I made it in the spring of 2003 after the US invaded Iraq. Of course I felt angry and helpless. The title is “How to use the weapon.” I wanted to warn about man’s lust. I used pictures of leaders at that time, like George W. Bush, Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, Kim Jong-il, Ichiro Koizumi, etc. I use only the words “Don't Shoot!”
I participated in an exciting project, the Sex Workers Art Show in the US in 2007. The following is text from the show “Ave Maria” that I made and said in the performance in nakedness.
I’ll suck your cock as much as you want
If doing this could end wars
Just don’t force me with guns and arms
(Or I’ll kill my self)
Your crude lust pumping
Do not rape the innocent ones
I’ll suck your cock as much as you want
If doing this could end wars
Recently I joined the burlesque troupe TOKYO TEASE by Erochica Bamboo. My stage name is Mary Yokohama. And this image is a transformation from lady to guy—C.Snatch Z. to SNACKY!
JAR: How has the book been received in Japan?
TH: Honestly I did not make a huge impact in Japan. It is all about “gay” “underground,” which is usually buried in a huge closet of Japanese society. People even feel awkward looking at these images and talking about [them]. It might take a few more years—or even decades—for these “ordinary” people to directly “see” and “talk” about these scenes in Japan. Certain people only can talk about some things that happened in the past and never existed.
JAR: Both Simone Fukayuki and Eric C. Shiner in the foreword and afterword to the book mention that the world captured in your photographs no longer exists. Why has this world vanished?
TH: I can explain it from many elements. Many drag queens’ lives are usually only a few years, while they are students or freelancers, for example. And the peak of the gay club culture scene was up to 2004 or 2005, before the creation of several internet communication devices for dating or meeting people. But at least they are still active. The Diamond Night hosted by Simone Fukayuki has been running since the late 80s and is still going on.
JAR: What is the drag performance scene in Japan like now, in relation to queer becoming and activism around HIV/AIDS and safer sex education?
TH: I have to tell you a long story about what happened in Kyoto and Osaka at that time. After the announcement of Teiji Furuhashi’s HIV infection, the members of Dumb Type and his friends started working to take care of him and also started to inform people about HIV/AIDS, or other STDs. They organized a nonprofit organization named AIDS Poster Project (APP) in the mid 90s and started collecting a lot of posters or visual images of HIV/AIDS. APP also hosted a monthly party named “Club Luv+” in Kyoto, and they usually did some drag performance with information about sexual health. OK Girls were sometimes on the stage, and other performers like Bubu de la Madrine or Huster Akira usually did some performance based on their political thoughts about sex, sexuality, gender and feminism. But I have to mention that this phenomenon, the combination of political issues and drag performance, were not so popular in other areas like in Tokyo. I still believe that the life of Teiji was so influential to those creative people in Kyoto.
JAR: How do you feel about your role as a photographer, having captured a vitality and excess that is now ephemeral ghost?
TH: I believe any photographer can’t choose their subjects—the subject will choose the photographer. I was just destined to document this scene on the peak, in the right time and the right place. These photographs are also mirror images of my life at that time—going to the club after midnight, dancing all night with friends, watching drag shows full of glitter and wigs, the DJ playing Pet Shop Boys’ “Go West” at 4:30 AM, and after the party going to a café with queens to have breakfast, and going back to my room to sleep at 9 AM.
JAR: How do you hope this book will perform and travel within and outside Japanese borders?
TH: For me, these queens are symbols of empowerment in your oppressed life, especially for gay guys. I am so happy because I can see that this book is spreading out through the world. And I really hope someday, one skinny powerless gay boy (or girl) in the middle of nowhere will eventually see my book and “awake,” rush into the store to buy high-heels and wigs, start lip-syncing with the song “I will survive”—to make his or her life powerful and strong.
Images from The Night is Still Young by Tomoaki Hata, published by powerHouse Books.