The 2017 documentary Boys for Sale (売買ボーイズ), about the lives of male sex workers in Tokyo, was screened at this year’s Outfest Film Festival in Los Angeles. Producer Ian Thomas Ash flew all the way from Tokyo (his home for the past 17 years) with Co, one of the interview subjects, to attend the screening. Ash and Co spoke with Gay Essential on a late weekday morning in the atrium of the Director’s Guild building in Hollywood, where Boys for Sale (売買ボーイズ) would be screened later that evening, to talk about the film.
Boys for Sale (売買ボーイズ) interviews several current and past sex workers about how they got into the sex industry, why they chose this work, their experiences as such and their life plans for once they move on from it – or, if they’re no longer working as such, what they’ve done since. The reasons are surprising and the stories are compelling – though at times, some are also bit sad and others even heartbreaking.
Ash started working on the film about three years ago. At the time, he was also directing it. But during some of the early interviews, he stepped down as director though continued on as a producer. “At some point, I realized that I wasn’t the one to tell this story,” Ash recalls. “It needed another director to complement it. The film took much longer than we thought it was going to take – as often happens with documentary films. I also needed to move on to a different project and I knew it was the right thing for the film. So I brought on a new director to bring a new vision to the film and finish it.”
I personally found that laudatory, but Ash saw it much differently. “I don’t know if it’s laudatory,” he protests. “I’ve been doing this awhile. I’m old enough and have enough confidence in what I’m good at to know that this was not where the film needed to go. If you look at the music and the animation, that’s not where my creative sense lies. It needed someone who can bring that vision to it. I would never want to try to retain something to keep it mine. I would rather let it go if that’s what’s going to be good for it.”
Ash first found out about this story when he was taken to one of the many small bars in the Shinjuku district of Tokyo sex workers operate out of.
“I had not been aware of that world,” Ash says. “[But] we could go there for a couple of drinks and talk with the guys. Because I make documentary films, I was interested in the stories of those people. Whenever I meet somebody, I often go into interview mode. I was just interested in what kind of guys were working there. I wasn’t coming from any place of judgement. I was simply just curious. I was interested in how the whole system worked. After going there a couple of times and meeting a few guys, I knew that was something I wanted to work on as a film.”
Ian met Co at the bar he owns in Tokyo. Ian asked Co if he knew of any sex workers that he could talk to. Having been a sex worker from the ages of 20 to 24, Co, now 30, offered to be interviewed for the documentary. “I am not ashamed to talk about it,” Co says. “I made my life in four years’ time just working as a sex worker. That was my life. It was fun. I really liked working as a sex worker. If I wouldn’t age, I would continue working as a sex worker.”
Understandably, not everyone was as open and willing to be interviewed for the documentary.
“We only ever talked to people who wanted to talk – and then provided them a safe place,” Ash says. “Every person in the film was offered the ability to say no to the interview. On top of that, they were offered the chance to have their face or their voice obscured. Some were freed up knowing we were going to cover their faces or change their voices. It was creating an ability for them to be able to speak as much as they could.”
Some of the boys in the film were still in the business, so the film crew actually had to purchase them as sex workers and bring them to sex rooms for their interviews. “Normally, you don’t pay a documentary subject for an interview,” Ash reveals. “[But] they were being paid what they would be paid if they were having sex.”
But that wasn’t the hardest part about the production for Ash as a producer.
“The hardest part was talking to guys that were very clearly unaware of sexually transmitted diseases – let alone how to protect themselves [from them]. One interview was asked about STDs and he didn’t know the word.” But once the young man figured out what Ian was talking about, he was surprised to find out that men could get them too. “In Japan, if someone were to get tested for any STDS he might [think] that he did something wrong,” Co adds.
“There’s a section of Boys for Sale (売買ボーイズ) towards the end which deals with STDs,” Ian continues. “It’s maybe a 5 or 6 minute section of a 76-minute film. It’s borderline as to whether or not it’s too long, but that was a very important part of the story. So while we’re not doing this for sexual education — that was not something he [Itako, the director] was willing to take out the film or cut down. It was shocking for everyone involved in the film that so little was understood about STDs.”
Though several other topics ranging from conservative views on homosexuality in Japan, shady recruitment practices and discrimination factor in the film and came up during the interview, Ash doesn’t want people to come away from Boys for Sale (売買ボーイズ) thinking it’s an education documentary. “It’s not about judgement on sex work at all. If anything, it’s ‘sex work is there, it’s been there forever and it’s going to be there forever’,” he concludes.