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The red light districts of Tokyo have been well-documented through the ages in many mediums.  The pervasiveness and variety of consumable interactions for every sexual taste and perversion, has existed in Japan since time immemorial.  All these intimate contacts are smuggled under the winking eye of the law, yet somehow there has been one form of straight-up flesh peddling that has escaped actual legislation.  BOYS FOR SALE won’t win any awards for the ingenuity of its title, but it does give viewers a fascinating plunge into the thriving world of male-for-male prostitution.

A large billboard stands at the center of Shinjuku Ni-chome (Area 2), one of the biggest gay districts on the planet: The sign is a cartoon rendering of two men closely embracing; its text reminding onlookers of the still-present threat of HIV and urges them to employ safe sex.  Under the sign stand several flashily-dressed young men, clearly implying available companionship for the evening, the hour, or a few hot minutes.  It is not here that we’re stopping; we’re treading into the deeper waters of the more than 800 gay businesses saturating the district, on to the (in)famous bar scene.  We pass several entrances that bear signs out front resembling restaurant menus; however instead of displaying delicious dishes, the photos are of youthful men that a customer can order and consume just as easily.

The set-up is simple: A customer walks into the bar, in which all the available “boys,” or “urisen,” are stood up for the client’s selection.  Money changes hands between the bar manager and john, and in small, cramped backrooms with barely enough space for a slim bed, negotiations and exertions take place.

BOYS FOR SALE explains that the available men in the club mostly identify as straight; some even in committed relationships with their girlfriends.  The “boys” describe what they do with other men is only a job, for which they receive unspectacular pay.  About two-thirds of the urisen interviewed request disguises, pseudonyms, and voice alteration to speak on-camera, while others have no such concern for possible consequences.  One such fellow hides behind a fetching mask, in part because he’s not really supposed to be there, being four years past his bar’s proclaimed urisen expiration date of age 26.  Others are more up front about their worry about friends, families, and daytime employers finding out about their night work, which none of the men see as permanent, except perhaps a couple of fellows contemplating moving up to manage such an establishment.

BOYS FOR SALE is absolutely fascinating.  It asks – and gets answers to - so many questions anyone would have when faced with someone doing this type of sex work; particularly considering the asserted heterosexuality of majority of the tricks (Though some admit to bisexuality).  Throughout the course of the discussions with the “boys,” they matter-of-factly relate graphic descriptions of their first times being chosen at the bar, and various gradations of male-on-male sex; things that physically hurt, things that weren’t as bad as they thought it was going to be, and some of their weirdest experiences and customers.  The urisen break down how much they are paid, and what is left after the house receives its cut, which, considering the men’s effort, doesn’t seem like terribly much.  They detail the standard bar etiquette and acts performed that fulfil their allotted time with their clients.

We also learn a bit about what brought the “boys” to the bar in the first place.  For some, it was low or lack of employment, while others simply ran away from home and immediately joined the stable.  Two of the urisen tell us they ended up in the bar as a result of catastrophic earthquakes and tsunamis in Iwate and Fukushima (Which also endured a nuclear power plant meltdown), with one subject losing both his home and planned future while only in middle school.

The “boys” also talk about how their closeness with each other and shared experience working as urisen is something they can only talk about amongst themselves.  That camaraderie not only makes their work bearable (Cos it ain’t the pay), but some claim it actually has kept them working at the bar longer than intended.  (Although the walkthrough of the cramped, disgustingly filthy dormitory where the “boys” may reside if they choose, makes one wonder how they can live together at all.)

Many of the stories of life in the boys bar are entertaining and funny, and the tellers display some of the charm that keep the punters coming back, but there are those like 19-year-old Ran, one of the urisen whose life was completely destroyed by a tsunami.  Ran relates being tied up and gang-raped on the premises, with no follow up as to what happened to his rapists.  Another “boy,” talks of also being violated during his first time with a customer.  In these instances and others, the perpetrators’ lack of condom use also provides a chilling lead-in to another danger rampant in the gay community in Japan.  As a highly industrialised country; the rate at which HIV/AIDS cases in Japan have increased exponentially year after year, is astounding.  

When asked by the crew to discuss what, if any, guidance the bar management provides about safe sex, one supervisor carefully discusses a sort of soap test for STDs (That just sounds like wishful thinking), but one urisen claims the managers have never trained him in how to protect himself.  Another urisen talks about his intimidation when asking johns to wear a condom, which more often than not finds the “boy” submitting to unprotected sex.  When 18-year-old Shouta is asked how one gets an STD, it is clear he has no idea, and doesn’t really know anything about HIV/AIDS, or its transmission.  After a long deliberation, veteran host Co claims he has never known an urisen with an STD, which seems extremely unlikely.

Shouta is also concerning because as someone in the prime of his teenage years, in the very first days of his adulthood, the young man is already looking at the future through the darkest lens possible.  He has no hopes or aspirations.  With the constant transaction of his flesh framing his mindset, everything comes down to money; including the idea of starting a family of his own.  So, he wishes not only to go through life alone, but hopes that his life will be a short one.  Considering Japan’s extraordinary suicide rate, I wish there had been a word about the “boys”’ mental health, as well as their physical well-being.

I also would have liked some insight as to the reason why it is so important for the “boys” to represent as straight, including Co, who says he is “obviously gay”?  In the film, it’s discussed from the business angle, explaining that the john knows he had to pay straight “boys,” as opposed to thinking he “has a chance” for a free go with a gay urisen.  However, I was more curious about the psychology from the john’s end, and whether the idea of having sex with someone straight was somehow more exciting in light of the conservative attitudes pervading current Japan, where homosexuality is looked at in a taboo way that it was not for millennia prior to the Meiji era.

BOYS FOR SALE integrates drawings and animation by N Tani Studio to depict the actions described by the urisen in clear and graphic detail, so the audience can have no doubt what they are talking about.  It is at once whimsical and informative, and unlike the film’s title, terribly clever.

It is clear there was an abundance of time and care taken for the filmmakers to create the level of trust to get these young men to be so brutally honest about their experiences, and confess all to the camera.  (When asked by the crew which was more difficult, many of the urisen choose the interview over their nightly sex work.)  Considering the legendary shyness and reserve of the Japanese people; the openness and frankness of the film is truly remarkable.  The men’s willingness to answer all the questions put to them, even slightly voyeuristic ones - i.e. the ones we all wanted to know, but were afraid to ask  - makes the film one of the standout documentaries of the year.  In the bit under an hour and a half that BOYS FOR SALE is on screen, we really are walking into a world the general public might never see for themselves, but is stunning to know exists.


~ The Lady Miz Diva

October 21st, 2017


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