Shonen: How A Young Japanese Gigolo Learns To Love Life Via Hard Work (film review)

You’ve heard that foodie movies trigger your appetite. Love stories trigger tear ducts. Documentaries will cause political rants. In that vein, “Shonen,” a film about a male prostitute pleasuring his women clients with relentless energy and single-minded dedication, will…

Okay, well “Shonen” doesn’t exactly have that effect, because as a line in this brilliant film goes, “women are not simpletons.” Still, some segments were evocative.

For Japanese women viewers, the film may be a catalyst for some um, deeply stirred soul searching, if only because most Japanese women are conditioned from birth to cater to the needs of others, specifically men and ignore some basic physical needs of threir own. Confusing women further is the mixed and murky, societal message. Yeah, women are taught to appease and please men but at the same time we’re constantly warned against casual sex, couched in terms to make us feel like either victims (rape! groping! being dumped before marriage!) or sluts (self-explanatory). Men called all the shots and were the enemy but women couldn’t live without them because we’re women. It’s an image that Japan’s male-dominated culture has thrived on. As for sexual pleasure equally enjoyed by both parties? Ahhh, didn’t get the memo on that one.

(C)石田衣良/集英社 
2017映画『娼年』製作委員会  
●公開表記: 4月6日(金)、TOHOシネマズ 新宿 他 全国ロードショー
●公式HP: http://shonen-movie.com/ Twitter @shonen_movie
●企画製作・配給: ファントム・フィルム  ●レイティング: R18+

“Shonen” however, urges women (and by implication, men) to explore their pleasure spots and revel in the fleeting moment because hey, what’s wrong with things being a little transitory sometimes? And to ease any apprehensions, the film proffers a cute young guy, not so much as a seducer but a persuader or a guide, who happens to be unclothed for the majority of the film’s nearly two hour duration. Not surprisingly, the screening room was crammed with women and more were waiting in line on the sidewalk, only to be turned away with promises of additional screenings the following week. Months before “Shonen’s” official release date was announced, online rumors heralded it as the Japanese “Fifty Shades of Gray,” but with a much better cast and specially tailored for a female audience.

Indeed, only the bravest of Japanese men could sit through “Shonen” without feeling massively out of place, unwelcome, inadequate and dismally uncomfortable. The warning is written into the title: the kanji character “sho” means prostitute and the “nen” points to a young male, and in this case he’s played by none other than resident sweet boy-next-door Tohri Matsuzaka whose adorableness is matched by a good-sport, non-threatening vibe. The movie shows us that both traits are assets in the world of male prostitution because the work is One client is a 70 year old lady in a kimono (played by Kyoko Enami, who’s actually 76). Another is an older, wheel-chair bound husband (Tokuma Nishioka) who requests Ryo to rape his young wife (Kokone Sasaki) in an onsen (spa) inn, so he could video-tape the whole thing and watch it later.

In one scene, Matsuzaka’s character Ryo is recruited by the glamorous Shizuka (Sei Matobu) into her “club” of male prostitutes. Ryo assumes he is to have sex with Shizuka, but in fact, he’s ordered to perform with Sakura, a young deaf woman who happens to be Shizuka’s daughter. After it’s over, she quietly places a 5000 yen bill on the bed, telling him matter-of-factly: “your sex was worth 5000 yen.” And then Sakura plonks down another 5000. “She’s taken a liking to you,” says Shizuka, indicating that he passed the test. As far as job interviews go, this is probably more pleasurable than most and the initial pay isn’t bad: 10,000 yen an hour and any tips are Ryo’s to keep.

Just in case you’re shocked, shocked!, like Claude Rains in “Casablanca,” male prostitution in Japan has been around as long as female. Historians have written that the original kabuki actors were homeless gay prostitutes, performing on the banks of Kyoto’s Kamo River by day and selling sexual favors by night. Currently, the rumor is that there are 30,000 “hosuto (escorts)” working in Tokyo and roughly 40% are into prostitution as side hustles. Tokyo’s male escort industry is ruthless – stories abound about how they will bleed their female clients dry and when the money runs out, sell them off to Chinese sex traffickers.

“Shonen” isn’t a sweat and tears documentary about the underside of Tokyo’s sex industry. It is in fact, a fairy tale that showcases the sexual prowess of Tohri Matsuzaka, who at 29 can play an alluring 20 year old who routinely cuts classes at a posh Tokyo university.

(C)石田衣良/集英社 
2017映画『娼年』製作委員会  
●公開表記: 4月6日(金)、TOHOシネマズ 新宿 他 全国ロードショー
●公式HP: http://shonen-movie.com/ Twitter @shonen_movie
●企画製作・配給: ファントム・フィルム  ●レイティング: R18+

The very first scene shows Ryo hard at it, grunting and gyrating on the splayed body of a young woman moaning with pleasure at appropriate intervals. It’s a one night stand and the girl leaves in the morning after ascertaining that she just did it with a guy from a top-ranking university (“Wait till I tell my girlfriends!”) but Ryo can’t get no satisfaction. Later, when he meets Shizuka for the first time, he describes the sexual act as a “hassling exercise routine with all the moves already mapped out.” But as soon as he’s paid by his first client, Ryo feels more alive than he ever did. By turning his back on the normal world of sex with girlfriends, one door closes but a new one opens, one that inducts Ryo into the business of pleasuring women. It’s to director Daisuke Miura’s eternal credit that none of it is demeaning for any of the characters, even though he defies every taboo in the book of mainstream filmmaking. Audiences may find hard to stomach how Shizuka deploys her daughter to test the sexual abilities of new recruits, as she stands not three feet away, watching impassively with arms folded over her chest like an inspections officer.

In the end, a certain melancholy hangs in the air like an invisible pinata. Ryo couldn’t enjoy sex when it was free, but as a source of employment and act of labor, he begins to love it, and commits to the job like any dedicated salariman. He couldn’t be bothered to talk or be civil with casual girlfriends but with clients, he’s willing to have meaningful conversations and be kind, considerate and gentlemanly. Is work the all-controlling, always-defining core of Japanese life? One of the questions to ponder, in the midst of all that panting.

21 Reasons Why Japanese Men Suck (A Book Review) by Ms. Kaori Shoji

Usually I try to avoid self-help relationship books like Hepatitis B but the title to this is sort of catchy: 21 Reasons Why Japanese Men Suck (なぜ日本にはいい男がいないのか 21の理由)

So I picked it up, said yes to writing the review and then the truth sank in: never mind the sucking Japanese men, the book itself is a D.O.A. (Dead On Arrival)

Anything with “21” in the title tells you most of what you need to know about the author, starting with such fundamentals as: 1) He’s probably between 45 and 60 and a lot of his ideas are stuck in the 20th century. 2) He’s probably a he and not a she, so what does he know about how men suck? 3) In 1999, he probably deployed the phrase Y2K more than 500 times in public. Before even cracking open the spine, I feel acute embarassment trickling over me like a faulty showerhead – not just for the author Tomonori Morikawa but for myself, the Japanese publishing industry and the Japanese dating scene in general. If we had all pulled ourselves together before the arrival of the um, century 21, we wouldn’t be floating around in this mess of 21 reasons.

21 Reasons Why Japanese Men Suck/なぜ日本にはいい男がいないのか-21の理由-
21 Reasons Why Japanese Men Suck/なぜ日本にはいい男がいないのか-21の理由. Japanese women get blamed too.

 

On the other hand, Mr. Morikawa (58) undoubtedly means well. His good intentions ooze from the pages as does his impressive academic resume (ph.D in political science, graudate from Waseda University and post graduate stints at prestigious US universities etc.). Professor Morikawa now resides and teaches in Oregon. Judging by his back cover photo, he probably bicycles to work, shops organic and his “omiyage (coming-home gift)” of choice on the occasions he returns to Japan are packets of Stumptown coffee. Nice guy, really and most likely an ace political scientist, which is his special field. But when it comes to the relationship issue in post-3.11 Japan, I regret to have to say that the Professor is sadly uninformed and out of his depth. The book is divided into 3 chapters: “It’s the Fault of the Times,” “It’s the Fault of the Men,” and finally “It’s the Fault of the Women.” Clearly, Mr. Morikawa feels that someone or something should take the rap for this sorry state of affairs (no pun intended) but falls short of pointing a decisive finger. In another two decades, 60% of the men in this country could spend their entire lives solo, dying without ever having had a relationship, and Mr. Morikawa (for all his provocative title) doesn’t seem very upset about it. And if he’s waist high in bikini-ed women clamoring for his attention out there in Oregon, he’s certainly keep that under wraps.

“21 Reasons Why Japanese Men Suck” is written from the viewpoint of a Showa era (1925-1989) man, whose cultural and relationship reference points are mostly western. One of the salient points about “21 Reasons…” is the uncomfortable frequency of the phrase “in Europe and the US” – Mr. Morikawa obviously holds the western standard as sacrosanct, and ignores people like the Chinese, Indians and Africans – now a demographic and economic force to be reckoned with. Among the 21 reasons, he sites that the typical single Japanese male can’t kiss, smells bad and eats too much garlic. Elsewhere on the globe kissing is considered weird, disgusting and inappropriate, and many Turkish women for instance, actually prefer garlic breath. As for the male aroma issue, Mr. Morikawa should try riding on a Moscow subway in July.

The big problem with “21 Reasons…” is that, like a true Show-era “ojisan (uncle)” Mr. Morikawa tries to link a heavily political issue (Japan’s alarming birth rate decline) to the personal and intimate terrain of dating and sex. That such a pipeline does NOT work has been demonstrated by countless Japanese women being totally turned off by countless old-men politicans endorsing sex and pregnancy like it was the 1940s (one of the government slogans of that dark period was: “Bear children and multiply!”). None of those politicians including our present PM, never seem to get that it takes two to make babies and a lot of Japanese men are simply not interested, not ready or ill-equipped to make that sort of commitment. Mr. Morikawa at least, refrains from pinning the blame entirely on the women, but he does preach that once a woman hits 20, her marketability points go way down, along with her chances of encountering a non-smelly/good kisser who’s willing to get married and live happily ever after. According to Mr. Morikawa’s estimate, “Prince Charming on a white horse” comes around only once every 5000-plus new meet-ups. So if a woman had a blind date every single day for 14 years after her 20th birthday, she would be hitting the jackpot sometime after age 34? Gee, thanks for nothing.

The overall tone of “21 Reasons…” is pitched somewhere between midly condescending and mildly concerned – which could get intensely annoying after page 10. While professing to admonish the men by pulling his main conclusions exclusively from interviews with Japanese women locked in various stages of disappointment and frustration, Mr. Morikawa frequently slips on his own banana peels by strewing outdated stereotypical statements to explain the J-Men-Sucks phenomenon: “Japanese women just sit around and wait for a Prince Charming on a white horse to come along. Do they realize the odds of that ever happening?” “It’s imperative for Japanese men to get into good universities to ensure their futures. But it’s not so important for a Japanese woman to over-educate herself.” “Women need to play hard to get, in order to nab a desirable man. Look at the examples of Ginza bar hostesses.” In short, huge chunks of the book are not devoted to analyzing the problems proffered by the title, but given over to entitled, chauvinistic statements urging women to go out there and make themselves available.

Mr. Morikawa does make a sound observation, albeit not a very helpful one: that 10,000 years ago in the Jomon Period, Japanese couples got married at 14, had their first child at 15 and died off at 30. Even in the Edo Period, it was a huge deal if people lived past 45. Until the 1950s, he writes, couples were obligated to spend roughly 15 years together. Now the marriage years form a long, long stretch, compounded by the fact that the Japanese now live for a colossaly long time. “It’s impossible to keep loving the same man for so long,” he sighs. Duh.

So what to do? Make your body odor more acceptable and lay off the cheap booze, advises Mr. Morikawa. Otherwise, the professor doesn’t seem to have a clue.

 

Kaori Shoji writes about movies and movie-makers for The Japan Times and is also a writer for theInternational Herald Tribune and other publications. Well known for her sharp wit, some have likened her to “the Dorothy Parker of Japan.