In these two documentaries Kim Longinotto and Jano Williams explore the options open to Japanese women who don't want to or can't conform to traditional expectations of femininity - which is ironic considering the fact that "Shinjuku Boys", one of the pair, was for me a gateway into an alternative way of doing masculinity when i saw it for the first time back in 1996.
The film follows three onnabe or 'women living as men' who make a living as hosts at a club in Tokyo. It is a mixture of fly-on-the-wall observation, narration and behind-the-camera interviews. This works well. The narration helps us put what we see in context, but isn't intrusive, and the interviews are done beautifully. In the most poignant moment of the whole documentary Gaish, the toughest of the three, interviewed in what appears to be his bedroom, gradually opens up and reveals the betrayal and rejection which has made him so angry and defensive.
Tatsu, one of the other 'women living as men' is actually a trans man or FTM (female-to-male transsexual). He's on hormones and appears to have been on them for some time (broken voice, etc) but doesn't appear to have had any surgery. He lives with a girlfriend whose family aren't happy about the fact: not because of any moral outrage at the idea but more because they won't be able to marry and have children. Tatsu was the first FTM i had ever seen and it's not an exaggeration to say that seeing and hearing him changed my life.
Finally, there's Kazuki who lives with a trans woman girlfriend in a semi-platonic relationship. Both Kazuki and Gaish are male-identified but more ambiguously than Tatsu. Neither of them are on hormones. It's interesting that there is no apparent divide between onnabe like these two and transitioned FTMs such as Tatsu (no obvious hierarchy for example) which is very different to the way things were in Britain at that time. Back then people tended to talk as if FTM consciousness was just emerging in Japan (they had yet to catch up with us) whereas now we can see that it was more the case that we had yet to catch up with them and loosen our dependence on medically defined identities.
Where Japan definitely did lag behind the West was in the area of employment: for all its glamour it's clear, although the issue is never really discussed, that working as club hosts is the only option that onnabe have. All the hosts you see in the documentary are young and you find yourself wondering what fate awaits them as they grow older. Have things improved since then? I'd love to see a follow up documentary.
Verdict: Great. Although the film looked a little blurrier than i remembered, the content hadn't lost any of its power at all.
I had never seen this documentary before. Although wrestling of any kind - female, sumo or camel - isn't something i'm particularly interested in i found the dynamics of the all-female troupe quite fascinating. Watching the wrestlers oscillate between brutality when they were in fighting mode and caring gentleness when they were out of it was perplexing, rather disturbing. The same wrestler (Satoyama) you see shyly humming a tune to herself you later see battering an opponent within an inch of her life.
This film lacked the intimacy of "Shinjuku Boys". There are scenes in which wrestlers speak to the camera - notably one in which Nagayo Chigusa (the troupe supremo) talks about how she learnt her leadership style of violent bullying and emotional blackmail from her father, a military man; but on the whole we're kept at a distance in a way that we aren't with the other documentary. Perhaps it's the nature of being an apprentice wrestler: the girls we are watching are training at a centre somewhere in the Japanese countryside, preparing for a test which will determine whether they're allowed to go pro. They can't really afford to let their fears and weaknesses surface too freely when they're under such acute pressure.
There was no narration which meant we had less context for what we were watching. I'd have liked more information about how the girls come to enrol at the centre. We see a young recruit (Sato) arrive with her mother but we never find out how she got to this point or how the relationship between the trainees and the centre works. Do they pay to become apprentices? Surely they must do. How many of them ever make it through their tests to become pros? How long does the process take? How do the girls reconcile wrestling with traditional Japanese ideas of femininity? Is there any association made by Japanese society between the butch image cultivated by many of the wrestlers and lesbianism? What is the attitude towards sexual relationships (of any kind): these girls seem to live like lycra-clad nuns. Is there any stigma (or prestige) associated with being an ex-wrestler? And who is the tough but decidely unwrestlerish looking woman who seems to head the troupe alongside Nagayo Chigusa herself?
Finally, i was intrigued by the story of Takeuchi, an apprentice who is as determined as she is lacking in aptitude. We see her fail one test (getting a bloodied face in the process) and beg Nagayo to be allowed to continue. She gets her wish but appears to fail this one as well; yet she this time round she's told she's passed and is allowed to become a pro. At her debut pro fight she is (predictably) thrashed and the sleevenotes suggest she retired soon after. Was this an example of the Japanese face-facing compromise: allowing her to achieve her dream and then bow out gracefully? What is the source of the anger which Takeuchi says she can only express in the ring? Somehow the thought that this sweet girl, always on the verge of tears, is pent up with rage we can't see disturbed me more than the violence we did see.
Verdict: Very good indeed.