Currently screening at film festivals around the world, the documentary film Boys for Sale, is showcasing audiences with a unique view of the Tokyo underworld. Located at Shinjuku 2-chome, young men called urisens offer themselves for sex.
For me, this is the first time that I’ve seen a documentary that delves deeply and comprehensively into a subject that may be considered ‘taboo’ among some Asian viewers. In retrospect, it was the South Korean filmmaker Lee Song Hee-Il – 이송희일 who made his gay trilogy starting with No Regret, about a young man who works at a gay bar. But even before that, it was Japanese filmmaker Hashiguchi Ryosuke – 橋口亮輔 who offered us his gay coming of age movie A Touch of Fever back in 1993. But both films are based on fictional characters.
Thus Ian Thomas Ash and Adrian “Uchujin” Storey come into the picture, as Executive Producer and Producer/Director of Photography of this documentary film.
In this interview we ask both about the filmmaking process, and why the boys at Shinjuku 2-chome need to be heard.
Who had the initial idea to explore and document the male sex-for-hire scene in Japan, particularly in Tokyo? Are there any previous circumstances that provoked and inspired the originator to do the film?
IAN: About 10 years ago, a potential subject for a documentary I wanted to work on brought me to an Urisen bar for a drink. It took me several minutes to realize what kind of bar it was, and then I was rather surprised to find out that most of the guys doing the work identified as straight. That experience stuck with me and several years later when I met Adrian and we decided to work on a film together, I told him the story and we decided to start doing research on whether we could make a film about Urisen bars. It was later in the process that the director, Itako, was brought on.
ADRIAN: The initial idea came about through several conversations between Ian and me, who were both long-term residents of Tokyo at the time (Ian still is). We were looking for a project to work on together and Ian had heard of the urisen bars so we decided to see if it would be possible to make the film and find out more about this rarely discussed world.
The film was born of a desire to understand the world that these boys inhabited and the reasons for predominantly straight men choosing to do this kind of work. Several of the team had friends who were sex workers and had spent time in countries such as Thailand and Cambodia where sex work is much more visible. Everyone wanted to understand how sex work and especially the urisen world functioned in Tokyo.
How did the group (or the film’s main crew) form? Are many of the members, friends? Do you share certain, similar passion? Please let us know some of the crew’s background.
IAN: Adrian and I met on Twitter after the Fukushima nuclear accident as we were both documenting issues dealing with the disaster. Itako (the director) and N Tani Studio (the illustrator) I had met through my teaching activities (I teach film-based classes at a university and at a trade school in Tokyo). Kazaguruma (the musicians) and Jeremy Yamamura (the animator) were people I had met through my own film work and colleagues we have in common. Because of the strange process of filmmaking, some of the crew has never actually met each other- even the illustrator and animator did not meet until after the film was finished!
ADRIAN: The primary team for the pre-production of the film was Ian and me, and both of us have backgrounds in filming making.
Both long-term residents of Tokyo at the time of production we knew each other socially and professionally and through a mutual appreciation of each others’ work, so we decided to work on the project together. Ian had directed several films that had achieved great success before including documentaries about the lives of people caught up post the 3.11 tsunami and nuclear disaster in Japan as well as other topics.
I had shot and directed numerous short-form pieces for clients such as VICE Japan and Greenpeace as well as D.O.P.ing a feature documentary on Public Artspace in Berlin produced by Cultural Video Foundation in Nairobi entitled “Twende Berlin”.
Both of us have a passion for documentaries that lead the filmmakers themselves on a voyage of discovery about a topic.
Would you call yourselves activists? In many ways, your work reflects on your principles/ideology as individuals. Featuring the lives of people who are marginalized by society like the people in the 3/11 twin disasters and the urisens.
IAN: Whenever anyone would refer to me as an activist, especially following my work in Fukushima, I would always protest saying “I am not an activist”. It is true that my eye is drawn to those who are not generally listened to, to those who may be on the fringes of society, and if that makes me an activist to some, then I accept that. But my way of demonstrating is not to go out into the street; it is to sit down with someone and listen.
ADRIAN: I don’t know if I’d call myself an activist, it’s been many years since I was out on the street protesting about anything!
I make films that are about marginalized groups or people on the edges of society because that is what interests me, those are the people I most identify with.
I hope my work reflects on my principles/ideology, personally I make no claim to be an impartial journalist, I think my work has a clear point of view on the subjects I’ve covered. I want people to be challenged by the films I make, I want to provoke thought and discussion.
To ‘document’ something as controversial and as ‘taboo’ as male escorts (or callboys), especially in Japan, what would be some of the biggest challenges you have to face? What drives you to push forward with the film despite all these?
IAN: The biggest challenge was gaining the trust of the managers of the bars and the guys who were interviewed. It was heart-breaking to hear some of their stories, but the need to document and share those stories was what drove us to push forward.
ADRIAN: The biggest challenge was getting the LGBTQ+ community in 2-chome to trust us, to understand that we were not like some other productions who had parachuted in for a few days or a week previously to make films about the area but were genuinely interested, sympathetic and were prepared to spend a long time getting to know the area and the people who lived and worked there.
The drive to keep going with a project that takes this long ( 1-year pre-production, 1-year filming, 1-year post-production) as filmmakers are the simple desire to want to understand something deeply. To be presented with an area of human experience of which you have little or no knowledge and to want passionately to explore, understand and feel empathy with the subjects of the film.
It’s understood that most of the film’s crews are not native Japanese. How would you describe the kind of collaboration you have to enter with the locals, in terms of putting together the various parts of the film? This is especially related to the animation – which brings in a whole new level of cool for Boys for Sale! Who put in the effort for the musical background and sound – also another amazing angle, giving it an almost surreal yet intriguing and exciting mood?
IAN: While Adrian and I are foreign, we have both lived in Japan for a long time- Adrian for 10 years (although he is now in the UK) and me for 15. The director, musicians, and illustrator are all Japanese. I am really glad you like the music and animations! As a producer, I really felt my job was to assemble a team that would be able to bring Itako’s overall vision for the film, especially the music and animations, together. When he told me he wanted a shamisen for the music, I thought, “this is not going to work”. But I called my friend Jack (which is his stage name- he is actually Japanese) who is a famous shamisen player and asked him to send some demos. My plan was to give the demos to Itako to put on the film so that he would realize it wasn’t going to work… but it did! Jack then brought in the cellist, Komitetsu, and the two of them composed the entire soundtrack for the film. And when Itako described what kind of illustrations he wanted, I remembered a former student of mine (who since started working as N Tani Studio) and called her up and explained the project. She spent the weekend working on some drafts, and when she sent them they were exactly what he was envisioning. We commissioned about 300 illustrations of which around 100 ended up in the film.
There was some historical study of the place, and it was described so vividly by the narrator. What sort of research was made regarding the locale – Shinjuku 2-chome? (Example: “Prostitutes when they die can’t go back home, and their bodies are just thrown away like garbage”)
IAN: The two characters explaining the history of Shinjuku 2-chome are both well-known fixtures in the area. Yo-chan opened a bar there shortly after the brothels that had been there were closed in the late 60’s, so his bar is now one of the longest-running gay bars in the neighborhood. Taq, who opened his bar Tag’s Knot more than 30 years ago, formerly had a radio program about gay issues and is an author, so he knows a lot about the history of the area.
Among the boys, who told the most tragic, authentic tale of why he’s a male sex-for-hire in the first place? Do you believe in what they said or do you think they try to ‘embellish’ some of their personal circumstances? Did these affect the choice of the boys to be featured in the film? I presume that there were much more who were documented, but some did not make it on film – please confirm if this assumption is in error.
IAN: For me, the most tragic story was that of “Shouta”, who at 18 quit high school because his family had money problems so he became an urisen to help out. However, he was never properly trained and had no idea what an STD was when asked. I do not feel that any of the guys embellished any of their stories nor did they have any motivation to. The guys, like all of us, just wanted to share their stories and have someone to listen to them. Regarding if any of the guys were “edited out”, the answer is no. All of the guys who were interviewed are in the film at least a little.
ADRIAN: All of the boys’ stories affected the team during filming, they all seemed to be 100% authentic and we certainly had no feeling that they were “embellishing” for the camera. In fact quite the opposite.
All the stories we heard on camera tied in very well with what we had learned from our research and extensive time in the area in pre-production talking to diverse members of the LGBTQ+ community in 2-chome. No one story stands out as being most “tragic” and we were careful to not present the boys in that way. There are moments in the interviews that caused the team emotional distress whilst filming as many of the stories were shocking and hard to hear.
How were the boys chosen – at random as they are approached by the team? Or some other way – via their managers? Or in the bar itself?
IAN: During the research phase, which lasted about a year, Adrian and I visited around a dozen bars– without cameras– to try to develop a relationship with the bar owners and managers. When we finally entered the production stage, all of the boys that were working in the bar in which we were filming that night were all given the same choice- to take part in the filming or not. If they agreed to be filmed, they were then given the choice to have their faces and/ or their voices obscured.
The film showcase a certain high regard for the subject – there was never a time when it tries to be exploitative or appear to be cheap. Was there ever a time when there are clashes of ideas on how to go about making the film? It could have been more controversial by showing sexually explicit scenes.
IAN: There are always creative differences in making films, but no one on the team ever wanted to do something just to be controversial or for the sake of shock or drama. Everyone tried to treat the guys and their stories with the utmost of respect, and we certainly hope that comes through.
ADRIAN: We were very conscious of the fact that given the subject matter it would have been easy to stray into making something that felt exploitative and we were very careful to avoid this.
We made a decision very early on that we did not want to attempt to film any sexually explicit scenes for this reason. We knew however that the film could not be just a series of talking heads so again very early on we came up with the idea of using manga and animation to illustrate those areas.
We were very lucky to find such a talented artist, N Tani Studio, who brought the animated sections to life in such a powerful way.
The issue that raised the most debate in the team was the issue of buying the boys for their standard rates and using this time to interview them, essentially paying them for their interviews. Traditionally in a documentary, this is somewhat frowned upon for obvious reasons but we felt in the case of this film it was the only fair way to proceed with regard to the boys and their situation.
Also due to the nature of talking about this topic in Japan we were fairly certain it would not lead to the boys feeling like they needed to “play up” to the camera by lying or embellishing their stories.
For this reason, we made it very explicit in the film that they had been paid for their time. As you can see in the final section of the film their reactions to being paid for their interviews were quite varied.
Boys for Sale have participated in film festivals. How would you describe the reaction of the audience as a whole? What are the most important achievements, so far, that the documentary has accomplished during its festival run? [Aside from tickets sold out all the way!]
IAN: It is such an honor to be able to share the important stories of these guys with so many people from around the world. Our hope is that there are parts of each of their stories that will resonate with everyone who sees it. I think overwhelmingly the audience reaction has been supportive, if not shocked, especially at the lack of knowledge surrounding sexual health that many of the guys have. Our hope is that this can help start some difficult conversations about sexuality, gender, and STDs, especially here in Japan.
ADRIAN: The audience reaction has been overwhelmingly positive if a little shocked by some of the issues raised in the film.
It’s an interesting experience to watch the film with an audience in a cinema as despite the subject matter there are still a few moments that provoke laughter.
The Q&A’s that we have attended after screenings have brought up some interesting questions, often related to topics we struggled with as filmmakers during production, I’m thinking particularly of the issue of paying the boys for their interviews.
I think the most important achievement of the festival run is simply that the story of these boys has been shared with so many people. Issues surrounding sexual health and sex work/workers clearly needs a lot more discussion, especially in Japan and if this film can help to facilitate further conversation on those issues it would be marvelous.
Aside from joining film festivals, what other plans do you wish to pursue in order to further promote the film?
IAN: Until now, we have been focused on screening in film festivals and trying to get the word out about the film. Ultimately, we hope to both secure a theatrical run in Japan as well as distribution, including some form of streaming/ on-demand service. Distribution would allow us to share the story of these guys with much more people around the world, and any money we received would be used to make more documentaries about stories we feel need to be told even if they aren’t necessarily commercially viable.
The gay porn industry in Japan, perhaps unbeknownst to some – is thriving. Example of which are Coat, Japan Pictures, and Acceed, which produce a good number of gay porn featuring young Japanese men and boys. Did the boys in these clubs, which you have documented, ever got involved in such videos? I ask this particular question because the film made it a fact that many of them are not really earning a lot of money. This ‘gay porn’ route could have been a way out or another option. Would you like to comment?
IAN: One or two of the guys did mention taking part in “masterbation” videos, where they had been paid to masterbate in front of a camera, prior to becoming an urisen. Perhaps having that experience caused the hurdle to selling sex to be lowered. However, the gay porn industry in Japan in itself could be an entire film, so that angle was not pursued for this documentary.
An article which appeared in the Huffington Post said, and I quote:
The action takes place in the Shinjuku 2-chrome section of Tokyo, which one male prostitute or urisen notes is “the gay center of Asia.” Someone adds, there are over 800 gay businesses in Japan.
Is this an undisputed fact because there are also places in other parts of Asia which can be similar in nature? I mean 800 business establishments!
IAN: That number came from an NPO doing outreach in the gay community, so, yes, I believe it is true that there are 800 gay businesses in Tokyo, including bars, clubs, saunas, and shops.
The News Shooter article featuring the director, Uchujin (Mr. Adrian Storey) told about the difficulties in shooting the film – restricted location, temperature, privacy, and time. Given the accolades and ‘all tickets sold’ buzz from international film fest, was it all worth it? Will you all do it again, and are there future projects we should know about?
IAN: “Boys for Sale” has taken more time and money than we ever could have predicted, but it has absolutely been worth it and I would definitely do it again! Currently, I am editing a feature documentary that I directed about the end of life care in Japan.
ADRIAN: The location and time constraints were difficult for the whole team involved in the production of the film at the shooting stage.
I was faced with a daunting task due to the restrictions and constraints you have mentioned, in an ideal world at least the addition of a sound person would have made things significantly easier, however, due to the size of the room this would have been impossible. It must already have been a little intimidating for some if not all of the boys to be in such a confined space with production staff, 2 cameras and lights.
The accolades and sold out screenings are obviously a huge honor for us and we are very happy to receive them, but ultimately our motivation is just to present the stories of these boys to the widest possible audience and provoke a debate about sex work and sexual health in Japan and elsewhere. If that happens it will have been 100% worth it.
The team worked extremely well together but is now split up somewhat due to members moving to other countries so it is unlikely that the same team will make a film together again.
However, each team member continues to work on other projects.
I am currently working as a D.O.P., cameraman, and editor in the UK and is involved in another several years long production of a feature documentary about contemporary calligraphy from around the world entitled Traces of the Soul which will be finished early in 2018.