Gaea Girls / Shinjuku Boys Review

Kim Longinotto started making documentary films in the seventies. From her first directorial credit onwards, the 1978 National Film School production Theatre Girls, her body of work has been united by a number of recurrent themes and approaches. That particular film was a sober look at a hostel for homeless single women and paved the way for what was to come. The overriding element has been a focus on female subjects, whether it be glue-sniffing teenagers from Coventry, as in 1983’s UndeRage, or those working for the Cameroonian judicial system, as in 2005’s Sisters in Law. But also prominent is a willingness to tackle potentially contentious and/or sensationalist material. Her films have taken in domestic abuse, mental illness, female circumcision and those who exist outside of the mainstream. This latest double bill from Second Run (following up last year’s pairing of Divorce Iranian Style and Runaway) is a case in point. Gaea Girls documents the world of female wrestling in Japan, following a group of recruits through their gruelling training sessions on the road to becoming professionals, whilst Shinjuku Boys encounters the female-to-male transsexuals (‘onnabes’) who work as hosts in Tokyo’s New Marilyn club, serving the clientele as “ideal men for female customers”.

On the surface it is easy to see how Longinotto could simply take the exploitative route in approaching such subjects. They are certainly niche, perhaps even novel from a western perspective. And yet we are not dealing with a director interested in creating ‘car crash’ viewing or presenting a freakshow, as it were, but rather one who searches for the human elements behind such unexpected surfaces and, by extension, avoids such pitfalls. Longinotto’s films are oftentimes a difficult viewing experience because they are so compassionate and take the viewer closer into their subjects than we, perhaps, are willing to go, but never as a result of taking the wrong approach. Ultimately - and this is especially true of both Gaea Girls and Shinjuku Boys - she presents human portraits and this is what lingers in the mind.

One of the great pleasures of Second Run’s decision to release their Longinotto discs as double bills is the manner in which it allows us to watch two films in quick succession, as opposed to catching up with sporadic television screenings as has been the case in the UK, and thus highlights her working methods. Viewing in such a manner we are able to see a very distinct approach to documentary filmmaking, one that is almost deceptively simple given the results it yields. In essence Longinotto adopts an ‘at work’ and ‘at home’ technique, in other words balancing the public with the private. In Shinjuku Boys this means both entering the club in which her various subjects work and their tiny apartments for the quieter moments. Gaea Girls, similarly, takes in wrestling bouts, training sessions and those times in which the recruits, or indeed the coach, get a little peace to themselves. Importantly, whilst Longinotto does interview, more often than not she simply observes (serving as her own camerawoman) and lets these moments unfold to their own rhythms. A perfect demonstration comes in Gaea Girls where we notice how she doesn’t really ‘do’ montage. Whilst the film may bear superficial similarities to such earlier wrestling documentaries as Beyond the Mat or the 1999 episode of Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekends where the titular host spent time with a handful of professionals, it never plays out quite how we expect a typical sports doc should. Here the training sequences are ‘scored’ with natural sound and extended far beyond what you feel their natural cinematic duration would be. But then such a decision prompts the realisation that Longinotto isn’t making a film about sport at all, rather those who participate in it. (By way of contrast witness George Butler’s excellent Pumping Iron II: The Women, a documentary that concerned itself more with the machinations behind a female bodybuilding event than it did the contestants.) And in order to understand their participation then of course we need to see just how gruelling this training is. For Gaea Girls to opt for the now commonplace Rocky-esque music-led, quick-cut montage would only be both the film’s and its subjects’ detriment.

Key to this simple and respectful style is the presence of co-director Jano Williams. Since she began looking outside of the UK for areas of potential documentary interest with 1988’s Eat the Kimono (her films having also focussed on African and Iranian subjects as well as Japanese), Longinotto has opted for an ‘insider’ companion to aid their making. Thus we find Florence Ayisi serving as co-director on Sisters in Law, Ziba Mir-Hosseini on the Iranian docs and Williams on a number of the Japanese efforts, including both of those found on this disc. Their presence is instrumental in allowing Longinotto to get just that little bit closer by means of greater access to and understanding of the culture being documented. In effectively bypassing any possible ‘outsider’ status the films simply become about their subjects, portraits of people irrespective of any national specificity. Thus we find the astonishingly candid interviews in Shinjuku Boys in which the three principle onnabes Longinotto has chosen to focus on speak with remarkable depth about their differing gender identities and relationships with their various partners. Moreover, because we are able to sense and, more importantly, trust that empathy behind the camera it easily gets transferred to the viewer. During such moments it becomes abundantly clear that neither film was ever going to take the sensationalist approach.

Perhaps the ultimate confirmation of Longinotto’s skills as a filmmaker and the sheer emotional force to be found in both Shinjuku Boys and Gaea Girls comes in their respective takes on what we might dub the ‘crying scene’. This particular kind of moment has for too long become a blight on modern documentary filmmaking, especially those of the televisual persuasion. The set-up is essentially that the subject is almost forced into a position where the tears will flow, thereby prompting accusations of both easy emotional manipulation on the part of the director and a certain degree of exploitation. Of course, this isn’t always the case, but it certainly is prevalent. Interestingly Longinotto finds herself skirting around such precarious waters in both of these films. Shinjuku Boys features a scene towards its close in which one of her subjects, Kazuki, makes a rare phone call home to his mother. The telephone has been hooked up a microphone so that the viewer may here both ends of the conversation and the dialogue that follows is clearly personal as revelations are made towards his work and relationship with a post-op male-to-female transsexual. Potentially, such a moment has ’crying scene’ written all over it and no doubt in less sensitive hands it would become just that. Yet Longinotto, having earned the trust to allow her (and, by extension, the viewer) to even listen in, knows Kazuki well enough to allow him to take control. Any emotions that are presented, and it’s particularly interesting that there are no tears, are his and his alone; Longinotto has imposed nothing onto the situation, other than her ability to be there in the first place.

The ‘crying scene’ in Gaea Girls, on the other hand, does feature tears and again comes towards the end of the film. Yet once more the obvious pitfalls are deftly avoided. In contrast to Shinjuku Boys’ all talk and no tears, here the words are very few. Unlike those types of documentaries noted above we are not getting some kind of full emotional disclosure complete with easy signposting (needless to say, Longinotto has not favoured lachrymose scoring in any of the films I’ve seen). Rather the scene becomes about what is not being said or cannot be said. Despite having followed the various wrestlers over a feature-length running time (and a number of months in real time) there remains a great deal of ambiguity owing to the complex of emotions behind what we are seeing onscreen. As with the equivalent moment in Shinjuku Boys, Longinotto again acts as witness and nothing more. Yet the empathy with which she has approached both films allows the scene to be imbued with more than a mere objective viewpoint. The attendant booklet with this release, containing a lengthy essay by Sophie Mayer, notes how during its filming Longinotto, Williams and sound recordist Mary Milton were all reduced to tears. It is highly likely that a similar response will be prompted in the viewer; not simply because of the scene in itself, but also owing to work that has been done behind the camera. Longinotto’s films are among the most downright human of any filmmaker I have ever seen, and the viewer truly become her surrogate.

The Disc

As with Second Run’s previous Longinotto release, the pairing of Divorce Iranian Style and Runaway, here we find both films fitting nicely onto a single DVD-9 disc. Shinjuku Boys, shot on 16mm, comes in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio as per initial television screenings (both this and Gaea Girls were made in conjunction with the BBC), whilst Gaea Girls, the more recent title, is presented with a 1.78:1 ratio complemented with anamorphic enhancement. Bearing in mind the televisual origins, it is not surprising that a small label such as Second Run offers up prints with burnt-in English subtitling in the manner of the TV screenings of the time. And given such circumstances both films do look as good as we should rightfully expect. Screengrabs unfortunately don’t do either film particular justice, especially Shinjuku Boys, but both look fine in motion and prove in no way detrimental to either film overall. Given the scant attention Longinotto has been paid on DVD overall (prior to the earlier Second Run double bill only Sisters in Law has been made available on disc in the UK) it is also worth noting that the sheer fact these films are here is reason enough to celebrate.

As for the soundtracks, both hold up especially well. Shinjuku Boys suffers from Shuko Noguchi’s intermittent voice-over being a little too low in the mix (and she is exceptionally soft spoken), though this would appear to be inherent in the original production. Nevertheless both are clean and crisp throughout, an element that becomes especially prominent during Gaea Girls’ various bouts and training sessions. The wrestling may be stylised to a degree, but the sound of flesh impacting flesh leaves us no doubt as to just how violent this sport is.

Unlike the earlier Longinotto disc, there’s no additional director interview to be found here. In its place we find a 16-page booklet containing the Sophie Mayer piece mentioned above, some brief recollections from Jano Williams, plus credits and production stills. Mayer’s article, incidentally, is superb, a wide-ranging piece containing plenty of background on Longinotto, the films themselves and the cultures they seek to document. On top of Gaea Girls and Shinjuku Boys themselves, it rounds the package off nicely - one that is, of course, available at Second Run’s standard bargain price.

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