‘Every customer thinks we’re her special boyfriend. They’re wrong. That’s how we do business.’ - Kazuki
I literally might cry a bit writing this but Shinjuku Boys (dir Kim Longinotto, 1995) is in my opinion probably one of the most perfect documentaries ever made and was also the first time I encountered other East Asian trans men represented on screen.
The film follows the lives of three young trans men who work as onabe, AFAB hosts who entertain women in exchange for drinks and tips, in the same nightclub in Shinjuku.
There is cocky and irreverent Gaish, the lothario of the bunch, who deflects his dysphoria and loneliness by being ever callous to his cloying lady callers - and Kazuki, the soft and cuddly one, in a T4T relationship with the gorgeous Kumi, a trans woman and showgirl. The third, and my favourite, onabe is Tatsu, who is quietly confident in his masculinity, shy, with a seemingly stoic comportment, which made his unexpected ruptures of vulnerability that the film documents all the more earnest and moving to witness.
I love how the film does not push to typecast the three men, but really embraces their differences in personality and allows space for the unique relationship each one has with his gender, body and sexuality. The film at times treads into darker territory, when Gaish expresses that he wish he had never been born, and in some of the moments when Tatsu opens up (incredibly poetically) about his gender dysphoria; not getting his period when everyone else did and experiencing it as gender confirmation - ‘when I did get it, I realised I really was a woman, and it was horrible’, or how he describes the fear that he felt when sleeping with his girlfriend Tomoe for the first time, which was ’like jumping off a cliff’, and his visible sadness when talking about the fact that he won’t be able to have biological children with her. None of these scenes are spectacular in themselves but the reason why it rly takes me into the blubber zone is that I’ve just honestly never seen trans narratives told like this before, and haven’t since, which is why Shinjuku Boys holds up so well 25 years later.
Written by June Lam
Artist and Writer