The Underground Transmasculine Cultural Impact of 1995s 'Shinjuku Boys'
By Lazarus Rise
*spoilers for entire film*
I seem to have found myself on an accidental host/hostess club film kick as of late.
This time we delve into 1990s trans culture at a prevalent host club (Club Marilyn) in Japan with the gimmick being that at this particular place the men are, for lack of better words, "assigned female at birth." The truth is that the majority of these specific hosts are actually transgender men. Around this time in Japan, LGBTQ issues were still ignored among the general population, with transgender people never getting recognition. So, host and hostess bars ended up being a few of the only safe spaces openly out trans people could find work in cities. If you’re unaware of what exactly a host/hostess bar is, it’s a place where people can pay for non-sexual intimacy (hanging out, playing games, drinking, sometimes unprompted therapy sessions, etc.) with attractive and personable entertainers.
Shinjuku Boys (1995) is a slice of life documentary about transmasculine society and dating at Club Marilyn among three friends who work together. They discuss hormone treatments, gender fluidity, day to day host club routines, and encounters with desperate clients that provide quite the diverse experience for the audience. It's fascinating to have a taste of the competitive (and poorly paid) host world while having the lives of the three hosts portrayed in a sympathetic, realistic light. There's Kazuki, a trans man who is dating Kumi, another trans performer from a drag/burlesque bar, Pink Soda. Tatsu, another trans man, lives with his girlfriend, Tomoe, and is the only one we follow who's received hormone treatments for quite a while. Then there's Gaish, a sought-out "tough boy" who describes their gender as being "in-between." Many of Gaish's thoughts about gender identity are akin to what some people today would describe as genderqueer or non-binary, as they feel they are neither man nor woman. They state that there's no personal desire within them to start hormones, and it adds an overall nice touch to the film. By documenting varying perspectives, the film doesn't push one specific direction when it comes to an individual's transition journey. I can imagine the discrimination some of the hosts dealt with for wanting to pursue or not pursue hormones, but people these days are more aware that hormones, surgeries, and the idea of "passing" are not sought out by every trans person and shouldn't be expected all the time.
As we get to see pieces of Kazuki and Kumi's relationship, it’s apparent there’s a deep fondness since they understand each other's feelings of gender and sexuality. Kazuki explains that his relationship with Kumi is asexual and how it taught him about emotional maturing. Gaish has a somber discussion about being afraid of never settling down, stating that in Japan, as women near thirty, the pressure to give in to a straight lifestyle becomes overbearing (which leads to many girlfriends panicking and leaving). Tatsu and his girlfriend Tomoe probably live the quietest life together at their home; Tomoe explains her jealousy towards Tatsu’s clients but understands it's part of the job and knows Tatsu is committed to their relationship. They talk about the desire to get married, not being able to have the biological children they want, and the pain that comes with it. Even in today's climate in Japan, "same-sex" marriage is outlawed and queer couples aren't allowed to adopt children, but in 2015, over 100 municipalities started issuing partner certificates that let partnerships be recognized for things such as hospital visits and leasing for apartments/houses. As for transgender people, to be able to change their gender marker, they are required to undergo forced sterilization, be unmarried, have no children under the age of twenty, and have reassignment surgery.
As there are serious tones throughout, light-hearted scenes are shown in between, such as the senior hosts at Club Marilyn going through the hiring process, training newer colleagues, singing karaoke songs, and showing how a general host bar keeps up with an ever-growing city. After seeing Shinjuku Boys, I wonder about todays whereabouts of Kazuki, Tatsu, and Gaish. Amidst the complicated relationship Japan has had with queer culture and trans masculine people being left out of most conversations, I am thankful for Shinjuku Boys being capturing the intimate existence of a random host bar from twenty-six years ago. The full film is available on YouTube and I highly recommend whoever is reading this to give it a watch.
Lazarus Rise (he/him) is a writer, artist, and creative from Shreveport, Louisiana who now resides in Colorado Springs, Colorado. To stay up-to-date with Lazarus, follow him on Facebook and Instagram @dungeoncowboy. You can visit his official website here, dungeoncowboy.squarespace.com.