For many years, Tokyo’s Shinjuku 2-Chome district was the go-to quarter for those in search of hookers. But that all changed prior to the 1964 Olympics as the largely conservative government opted to clean up the area by making prostitution illegal. The law did have the desired effect but, consequently, left many of the brothels empty with few interested in establishing a business in such a “soiled” area. Likely because the Japanese society prefers not to discuss some mores or activities in the open, sex for money between men never found its way into the statute. And thus began the “gayification” of the former red-light district as bars, sex shops and cruising zones began luring men from all walks of life and economic backgrounds in search of nubile young boys to satisfy their various lusts and desires.
First-time director-editor Itako has done the world a huge favour by thoughtfully and unabashedly chronicling the lives of the “urisen” (“boys” who sell their bodies; generally, 18-25 after which most have reached their “best before” date; it is widely accepted that—like the total population—only 10% of these sex workers are gay) and a few of their employers. One of the latter, Atsushi, explains how he was a “boy” for 6 months before switching over to management for nine and a half years. His comment, “Making money will make you hard” succinctly sums up why these young men are willing to be touched, kissed, sucked, bound or penetrated (either as “tachi” top or “neko” bottom) with those who have enough cash to call the shots.
The “boys” who are interviewed come with two broad distinctions: those who have no fear showing their faces and likely using their real names; those who either by wearing fancy ball masks or through intentionally blurred head shots feel invisible enough to share their stories and experiences.
With such a personal topic, what can a filmmaker do to raise the curtain on the sexual acts but not end up making a porn flick? The highly inventive answer here is to employ the considerable skills of illustrator N Tani Studio and animator Jeremy Yamamura. The result is as “raw” as the activities which are described without ever seeming to be exploitive or cheap. The bonus of using these drawings comes in the transition from black-and-white outline morphing into full-colour action to begin each of the film’s segments. (And we also learn that those boys who wished anonymity were only seen by the artists after their masks had been donned.)
Weaving everything together and providing a wonderful metaphor of East and West cultures, Kazaguruma’s pulsating score (fuelled by drums, JACK on shamisen, deftly balanced by Komitetsu’s searing cello lines) is at one with the “fun” (at first, for most), demanding (How to get hard and ejaculate several times a day? For many, they think of being with their girlfriends) lives of those who flirt with disease (for a few $100 more, the condoms are abandoned), are saddled with debt (their own or their family’s) and despair (What will I do when few men “pick me”).
The only thing missing was the point of view of the clients, but perhaps Itako will take that challenge up in his next project. JWR