This documentary, directed by my friend Ian Thomas Ash, focuses on MSM or men who have sex with men. It’s important to understand a few things about how the term MSM and the concept of male-male sex is being used here to understand what this film is seeking to document.
First, not all men who have sex with men consider themselves to be gay. This is especially true in Japan where sexuality as an identity versus as a set of sexual acts did not exist until after the “gay boom” of the 1990s.
Second, it’s important to understand that in Japan there is a long tradition of male-male sex that involves power/age dynamics; these same-sex interactions were considered a normal part of society. This tradition began in places like Buddhist monasteries, in master/servant dynamics, and in the samurai tradition, where old, more powerful men often had relationships with younger men who had comparatively less power.
This dynamic has also long existed in the “floating” or “water” world of Japan. These terms are used to describe the night entertainment businesses that often includes brothels, where young men, termed urisen offer sexual services to other, usually older, men for cash. This is sometimes referred to as “gay for pay.” For more detailed information on this history, please see the chapter “Homosexuality in Japanese History” from the book Male Homosexuality in Modern Japan: Cultural Myths and Social Realities by Mark McLelland.
Many of the young men who work as urisen do not do so by choice but rather out of some necessity, and most of them are not gay. Given that adequate sexual education is sparse at best in Japan, these young men, often forced into this work to help support their families, pay off debts, or because they cannot find other work, are at high risk for STDs, including AIDS.
This documentary is provides a space for these young men to voice to their own stories and experiences, allowing them to document their reality. The film has the power to break down some of the commonly held notions about the young men who work as urisen, as well as to help document the necessity for comprehensive sex education by demonstrating the unnecessary risk so many of these young men expose themselves to, in many cases without even realizing they’re doing so.
It is an honor and a privilege for me to work on this film in the capacity of story/narrative editor. In preparation for providing feedback and advice to the director, I have done extensive research, rooted in the work of Mark McLelland, who is widely recognized as an eminent scholar of Japanese sexuality and gender paradigms. This research has allowed me to provide a range of detailed feedback to Ian as he works with his editor to hone the rough cut into a fine cut and really begin to develop the narrative of the film.
I look forward to continuing to work on this film as it takes shape and to seeing audiences interact with the film in theaters and engage with the stories of these young men.