By ALEX EHRENREICH
The art of drag and the figure of the drag queen now occupy a place in the public consciousness like no other time in history, and thanks to popular drag-themed TV shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race and Dragula, a whole industry has risen up around the modern drag scene. With this has come a new generation of queens the world over, each with their own take on the medium. Japan is no exception to this; despite the lack of a Drag Race spinoff in the land of the rising sun, the Japanese drag scene is currently presenting audiences with a very unique and diverse product, including never-before-seen forays into the horror genre.
As is the case with most things in Japan when on the lookout for up-and-coming trends in pop culture, Tokyo is the place to be. Tokyo’s Shinjuku district has long been something of an LGBTQ+ haven, and the event in question is just a stone’s throw away from its famed Nichome neighborhood in nearby Gyoenmae: the horror-drag spectacular Casket of Horrors. Featuring gender-bending performers from all over the world, blood, monsters, and the occasional green screen, the event is a hatchet to the skull of the established Japanese drag scene. Here, all that glitters also goes bump in the night.
Casket of Horrors is put on by the international performers of the Tokyo drag house, Haus von Schwarz, led by Yukiro Dravarious (better known as Die Schwarze Frau), a Swedish-born model, musician, and mistress of the dark arts. Now in its second year, the event is a combination of live performances featuring housemates, a diverse cast of guest performers, and video submissions from all walks of drag creatures from around the world. Each show has a set theme running the gamut from ’80s slasher villains to campy holiday celebrations, and prizes are awarded to the best video drag-oon of the night.
Die Schwarze Frau is a veteran of the Tokyo drag scene, having first performed under that moniker in 2011. One of her principle influences is horror films, so it should be no surprise that her performances may include bathtubs full of blood a la Psycho, dancing vampires in Gary Oldman wigs, and glamorous homages to such beloved icons as Elvira. “I’ve always really sympathized with the villains, and felt like I needed to become a villain myself. So, for me, this is just the first step in my plan for world domination.” As a drag mother, she and house drag father Verik – a makeup artist, music producer, and former vocalist of industrial duo SURGYN – do their part for their children by “…giving them our performance experience, our makeup experience…our clothes, all the ratty bits.” Though the idea of drag houses has recently been popularized by shows such as Netflix’s Pose, house culture is relatively new to Japan, and in any case the Haus von Schwarz is not your typical drag house anyway; it is more of a collaboration among equals without having any kind of strict hierarchy. “[Our children] are also parents to us in some ways,” says Verik. Though this does beg the question: how does one become a drag parent in the first place? “I never planned on getting pregnant!” protests Die Schwarze Frau. Even drag queens do not kiss and tell, you see.
The focus of Casket of Horrors is, of course, the horror. In any given show, one can find faces being ripped off, dead girls wrapped in plastic, and a whole assortment of other crimes against humanity. As of this writing, their most recent show was “Camp Crystal Lake,” and, as it turns out, many of the queens in Haus von Schwarz grew up on slasher films, including the demon bitch princess, Angel Heart. “My personal references are all horror movies. I grew up on horror movies, I started watching horror movies way, way too young.” She counts the original Nightmare on Elm Street, Scream, and The Thing among her personal favorites. As a sexy nun worshipping Jesus in a whole new way, or as a nurse delivering babies for our viewing pleasure, she truly brings out the whore in “whore-or.” As for Angel’s drag sibling Le Horla, however, the biggest horror influences are Victorian gothic tropes. Their performances as a sort of “madwoman in the attic” tend toward the cerebral, yet visceral, inspired by the likes of Lovecraft with a bit of Jane Eyre thrown in. It’s the kind of brainy intellectual show where you get the brains with a side order of intestines to boot. Other house members include Stefani St. Sl*t, a visual artist and all-around crafty queen known for her occult abilities to cook up drag magic out of mostly dollar store products. In fact, the show as a whole has a very DIY aesthetic, despite prevailing trends in drag now moving towards runway-ready high fashion glam. “[RuPaul-style drag] is a real crowd pleaser, and you get a lot of tips from doing it, but it’s not our aesthetic,” says Stefani. As for how they keep this crazy show running, this is due in no small part to the efforts of “house slave” Summer Balenciaga, whose skill as a sort of unofficial manager of the group lies in getting things organized and somehow keeping the show going when a heel is broken or an eye gouged out.
This begs another question: how does one go about choosing what sort of unholy drag creature they are to be? While for some queens a drag persona is an entirely separate creature to inhabit, for others there is less separation between their in-drag and out of drag selves. This is the case for Julia YMIT (Your Makeup is Terrible), a bioqueen lovingly described as a hyper-feminine alien who is also a member of musical act DENANOMA along with Die Schwarze Frau. “I want to become even more feminine,” Julia says. “I want to enhance my own femininity as much as possible.” Verik concurs, stating, “My drag persona is like a final boss version of me.”
The international drag scene in Japan is a somewhat recent phenomena. Veteran Belgium Solanas was one of the first western queens to hone her craft in Japan, and has seen many of these changes firsthand. “I hated the drag that was on show. Nothing had changed for a long time. Terrible music…there was no variation.” What began as simply visiting Osaka’s drag shows in full face then led to a spot as a performer. Plenty of severed limbs, blood packs, and eyebrows made of teeth later, she has made an indelible mark both as a performer and a horror director. When Belgium isn’t performing, she is also a filmmaker with her group KKBB Collective. Regarding drag in the brave new world of RuPaul, Belgium still wants to innovate: “I think it’s a good idea to fuck with it if we can,” she says.
By and large, the glamorously gruesome displays at a Casket show are a far cry from typical Japanese drag; indeed, the drag scene in Japan had long been a separate entity, largely insulated from many of the changes in the club scenes elsewhere. The drag queens here have traditionally taken on a role akin to a bar hostess, with a focus more on hospitality than performance or fabulous lip-syncs. One should expect plenty of camp and lots of jokey double-entendres – though these are completely inscrutable for those not familiar with the language. It is even common for these queens to do the same set night after night, to the extent that bar regulars will shout out the punchlines to jokes a-la Rocky Horror. It goes without saying that this was very much Japanese drag for a Japanese audience, with very few foreigners in the seats, let alone on the stage.
But Drag Race has changed all things drag the world over, with a newer breed of Japanese queens beginning to take notice. Casket of Horrors guest performer, Okini is a big fan of the series. “I just started bingeing All-Stars season 6, and enjoy watching it as if I was one of the judges on the show.” A so-called “alien princess,” whose performances are everything from witchy séances to mesmerizing dance performances, Okini’s drag has more in common with western “genderfuck” performance art and the avant-garde club kid scene than typical Japanese pageantry. Such is also the case with Nagoya-based queen Lyra Grail, who considers herself a colorful “pop queen,” more akin to what you might see on TV than in your typical Japanese drag venue. Now a fixture at Nagoya’s lively Pride parades, she has also collaborated on a music video with Drag Race season 6 alum, Milk. Lyra is doing her part to help the next generation of drag queens, having started her own company to hold events, make clothes, and discover new local talent. Nagoya happens to be somewhat unique in the Japanese drag scene in that it is especially diverse: “It’s really rare for Japanese and non-Japanese queens to do events together.” She explains: “Typically, the [local] organizers aren’t as familiar with foreign queens. This may be because non-Japanese customers mostly go to events with only foreign queens. If a Japanese customer hasn’t been to these events before, they won’t know these queens or understand their appeal. Therefore, the [Japanese] club owners are also unlikely to create events with queens they’ve never heard of before.” This has, in the past, created a vicious cycle that kept both groups largely separate from one another.
It is rare, but some queens have been able to move between both camps with some success. Such is the case with frequent Casket collaborator Kosmic Sans, a Parisian expat who has been growing her following as of late thanks to an immaculate look, slickly produced music videos, and appearances on billboards dotting the Nichome skyline. A graphic designer and Pride queen extraordinaire, she has exhibited her drag abroad in places such as in Taipei and Paris. According to her, language is the primary issue holding things back: “Japanese queens are hesitant to use English if they are not completely confident in their language ability,” she says. It is a fear of failure then, she posits, that prevents many native Japanese queens from reaching a wider audience.
Among international queens in Japanese drag shows, a significant amount happen to be from Brazil, including the winner of the third Casket of Horrors, Mia Scandals. For her, being in Japan is one way to escape from restrictive gender roles in her home country. “Being from Brazil, everybody’s Catholic, so it’s not so welcoming,” she says. “When you’re a boy, you do have to be boyish, play soccer, or that kind of stuff. My father put me on the baseball team, judo, and this is the result!” she beams proudly. Now, this upbringing has served to inspire her performances: “Since I was little, my mother read the bible all the time, and I remember the drawings of the angel and devil.” She considers herself a big fan of Dragula, especially the mix of beauty and horror the series showcases.
Despite the current pandemic, Casket of Horrors’ last show was the first in over a year to have a limited live audience which was held at Shinjuku’s Club Rosso. With “Life is Art” as its running theme, the nine-year-old club features pole dancing, burlesque performances, and parties of all sorts. Its owner, one Mr. Tokuyama, has sought to preserve the various types of transgressive artistic expression that he himself enjoyed so much during past trips overseas. “Although I don’t do this myself, I enjoy watching it. I want people to be able to say they’ve seen things here that they’ve never seen before.” In the future, he hopes to open a second club and expand his business to both the Japanese and international communities in Tokyo. As for the Haus von Schwarz, they recently collaborated with the band Satanic Planet, a musical project by Satanic Temple spokesperson Lucien Greaves. At last, the cast of Casket of Horrors have this to say about the place of horror in drag: “If you dig deep enough into the grotesque,” Le Horla says, “you will find the sublime.” Or, to put it more succinctly in drag-speak: “Gag on us!”