Going through the motions in The Great Happiness Space

For those looking to get the low-down on what exactly goes on at a host club—that flashy, boozy Japanese phenomenon where Labyrinth’s King Jareth-meets-salaryman ‘hosts’ entertain J-women for cash—the 2006 documentary The Great Happiness Space: Tale of an Osaka Love Thief is the place to start. We posted a review of the film last year, and now JSRC  have hooked up with director Jake Clennell to get the story behind what it was like to document the nightly escapades of those who play in the realm.

Illustration by Mari Kurisato (www.marikurisato.com)

Interview by Jean Ren and Jake Adelstein

JSRC: Even someone with little knowledge of Japanese culture who has never heard of host clubs before can watch this film and pick out several universal elements from it. The girls use the hosts as sources of entertainment, comfort, pleasure, and scapegoats with no reservations. It doesn’t seem like a far stretch from situations everyone finds themselves in at one point or another in real-life relationships. Do you think that this makes the film’s subjects and their experiences more relatable to a diverse demographic?

Jake Clannel: People like to extrapolate stuff about relationships from [the film], but people already make a lot of deep films about relationships. I think there’s a lot to be said about the deeper emotional implications of what people truly think or feel about those relationships. So I don’t think the film stands out because of that. The film stands out (to me) because it’s kind of a joke on the audience in a way. Everybody in that film knows what the film is about, and everybody that’s in a host club knows what it is—so when it comes time to comment on “What is your experience in a host club like?” everybody already knows the rap. There’s a sort of set of clichés that goes along with that environment. It’s like you walk into a strip club as a man in America—you know it’s a strip club—you become temporarily absorbed in the entertainment of it, which is what you’re paying for, right? And when you watch a television show the reason you sit through commercials is because you want to watch the next episode of Cheers or whatever.

I see what you’re saying. Everybody should know what the deal is.

Exactly, everybody SHOULD know what the deal is. But what you’re paying for is to not know what the deal is. You’re paying to be temporarily relieved of that faculty. I think that we’re talking about (one of?) the most extreme case(s) here. I think that for most people—for most women its an opportunity for them to go somewhere where they can get drunk, they’re not going to get raped, and they’ll be taken care of by an institution that’s set up to take care of them. It’s focused on giving these women an entertainment experience—so be it an extremely labor intensive one.

A good host is somebody who is actually talented with people, which not everybody is. The same goes for a hostess. A bunch of guys go to a hostess club and suddenly there is a whole bunch of girls being very nice to them and everybody knows what the deal is. That’s not to say that something real can’t come out of it, but you don’t walk into a hostess bar and think that it’s not one—you walk in and it’s quite clear when you get the bill what the situation is. It’s explicit in the process. If I go to a theater and I buy a ticket and somebody does something on the stage, even though for that moment—if that actor is good enough—I’m lost in the illusion, I still know that it’s a staged and scripted show. Which is what you would hope for. That’s actually the best-case scenario.

Many host/hostess clubs are notorious for being exclusive to Japanese only. Was it hard to gain the trust of the Rakkyo employees, and to get permission to do a feature length documentary? What made Issei and the guys at Rakkyo in particular trust you?

I think for Issei it was really more about us being from the outside. So his perspective on it was probably, “Why are these people interested in this? Why would you be interested? What’s your take?” I think those guys are quite famous. They get a lot of press and television exposure. Issei is very famous in his own universe.

Issei admits to sometimes getting so caught up in his host persona that he can’t even tell what his true personality is. Would you say that he, along with the other subjects, were slipping into a role and performing for the camera—acting as they felt hey were expected to—instead of being “real”?

Isn’t that what is implied by the setup? In the sense that if you shoot a great kabuki actor who has spent his life embracing and inhabiting a role, that along with that role comes the actor’s existential dilemma. And that existential dilemma is inherent in the seductive nature of theater.

But did you want them to perform for the camera, or did you want to catch them off guard. Were you aiming to capture the moments where they forgot that the camera was there?

No! no. the camera was right in everybody’s face the whole time. I’m not hiding anything. I was very surprised by the frankness. [For instance] I had no idea what those girls do for a living. I just didn’t know. For me, it came as a surprise.

So you don’t think the fact that some of the participants were blatantly lying to the camera and using their interview as a means to personal gain detracts from the objective merit of the film?

[Those guys] weren’t strangers to publicity and I think from all the host media that’s out there everyone is quite familiar with the role that is inherent in the film— that it is in some way roguish. That’s what it is to be a host, right? You are famous for being extremely charming and attractive to women and not for being anything else—there is no other component. In the first half of the film they are giving the party line: we are providing entertainment for these women, we’re making them happy. At some point every host documentary draws the same conclusions. That to me is what is interesting. If a viewer gets caught up in the plot or the idea that the contradictions presented in the film are real, then that person has missed the point. The film is designed in a way to make people get caught up the contradictions, and then reexamine their biases. Ultimately, if they digest the film for long enough, they’ arrive at a different conclusion.

So you’re saying that everyone involved—even the girl, Saori, who most dramatically proclaimed her love and devotion to Issei– was playing along with the illusion?

Yeah she’s just playing. Totally playing! Host clubs have their own media, websites, videos, ads. Everybody knows the game. When you go to a host club you are engaged in an Andy Warhol-esque 15 minutes of fame, which you are taking part in, in a very very modern world. I go to Disneyland to get my photo taken with Mickey—I am in the Disney fantasy/reality. If I’m a middle management guy in a golf magazine, I’m engaged in that set of imitations within the time and media landscape. So when you go into a host club, there are performances/photographs/menus—it’s simply inherent in the illusion is the media. In order to be a host you have to be backed up by a certain amount of media. You have to be number 1 or your photo has to be there—your reputation is validated only if you appear in some form of media somewhere—this is particularly true in Japanese culture. Why is one host more famous than another? Only because of the media that surrounds them whether its self created, microcosmic or not.

How do the guys get started it the host club business anyway? Do they rack up debts at hostess clubs and soaplands? Do they lack an education for more stable employment opportunities? Or are they drawn to hosting because it sounded cool? What’s the motivation here?

One thing that I found out, through another film that was made on the same group of guys, was that actually a lot of these guys don’t necessarily come from money. The reason they need to make a lot of it is often to support somebody in their family that needs it. And that’s not what my film’s about though. My film is not about the reality of these people’s lives, it’s about the role-playing they are involved in within this tiny realm.

And this space is the so-called Great Happiness Space?

Yes, it’s an artificial universe. Like I said the reality of people’s lives is that you don’t get the backstories.

One guy in particular was really helping out his disabled mother, and another was sending the money home. That’s actually what they were doing. That’s the tragic truth. And as I’ve said in the past there is a sort of sense in it that… (pause) that it forces you to examine capitalist priorities in a way that you might not be able to look at your own life. It’s quite easy for you to look at someone else’s life, someone who is involved in something that pushes your buttons morally, so you immediately you create a sense of otherness because your moral line has been crossed. But really, aren’t we all involved in that? How many of us could not say we don’t do things that we’d rather not do for money?

It’s a system that we all know and love. You work, the things you buy in shops my not necessarily be benefitting some child that sewed it together in China or something. But it’s difficult to observe the own contradictions in your own capitalistic systems and work out a way to take action from it whereas in the film— in the film it is very easy from the POV of somebody who is outraged or confused to draw moral conclusions about these people. Which I think is naïve. And I say that because of an absolute unequivocal level of respect, truly, for the fact that these people are involved in such an intricate celebration of something.

So the guys have financial and familial obligations that they need to tend to that require crossing a few moral lines—fine. On the job though, you get a feeling that most guys are certainly taking advantage of some of the girls. How is the viewer to reconcile what seems like a display of moral depravity?

I think anyone would tell you that there’s a real difference between fucking for money and kyabakura. That’s not to say that people aren’t human and people haven’t married their hostess or something. But I think that’s separate, that’s something else, that’s something that goes on, that’s the real world. But a host club is not the real world—it’s a theater, and I don’t think that young drunk men and women don’t occasionally do what young drunk men and women do—(laughs)

They do! Right? So I think that that’s okay, but I don’t think that that’s really interesting. It’s just an inevitable part of what it is to be human.

But this kind of system operates on the open acceptance of the notion that in addition to sexual and physical services, abstract feelings like love, happiness, the intricacies of a relationship (even if they are just illusions) are products that one can buy as well. For people, particularly Westerners, who are accustomed to putting love and affection on a pedestal, this idea might be unsettling.

Because I’m a Westerner and I really don’t know much about Japanese society—I can’t tell one person apart from another on the street in terms of social class or lifestyle—I can’t claim to have had enough foresight in the field to understand how delicate and interesting it was as a piece of psychological projection. I didn’t quite get that at the time, but intuitively I felt that this was not about morality or relationships, this is about a story that people are telling again and again. It’s set up and you go through a set of stages again and again, and that’s what it is.

Were any of your personal morals challenged in this situation?

Oh, fuck me. What kind of line is that?! That’s bullshit—does anyone over the age of 16 actually take that seriously? That’s the drama that everybody knows! It’s a prerequisite for this dilemma to be possible. But if I suspend my belief for just a moment and think a pretty young girl is actually interested, then I’m getting my money’s worth. If I don’t suspend my disbelief, I’ll go back to my ex-wife. (laughs)

Do you keep in touch with Issei and the others?

No I’ve been working in the theater for a long time, and I’m currently making a film about breastfeeding. I just finished a film abut Alaska. I spent the last 6 months of my life in the slums of Bombay. One of the beautiful things about my job, which is primarily documentation, is just moving from one amazing situation to another. I don’t think it’s [my relationship with these people after the filming]…I mean it’s irrelevant. I don’t know about their lives, I don’t know those people you know? I mean, I respect them immensely and I’m extremely grateful that I was allowed to take part in [the experience]—it gave me a lot of food for thought about what it is to address a situation that might be a bit bleak. And have created out of it something that is so mysteriously entertaining.

There’s a scene in the movie that shows a “champagne call” which is basically an activity in which the hosts are made to drink up to 10 bottles of champagne in a night in order to cater to the competitive nature of their jealous female customers. I think for many viewers, this is the point where one realizes that these guys really are hard workers.

Yeah! Nobody works harder than those guys!! No one does. They just don’t know how hard they work because they’re young. They might know, but you’re indestructible until you’re like what, 27?

So in some senses this film is really about a form of dinner theatre where everyone, the actors and the audience are playing their assigned role?

You got it! You scored—you understood it. But yes, to me that’s interesting. Some people might not think that. It’s kind of a one trick pony. It’s not exactly Shakespeare.

From my standpoint as a director, I hope there’s a point at which you stop being caught up in the battle of the sexes, and you start moving into an area where you begin to look at it as something that might actually be a little bit more charming.

The ones that were working in the sex industry were very upfront about it. But you see, the point is that the film is structured to manipulate the audience’s biases. It’s girls versus boys. If you watch it with your significant other, between the two of you there’s a point where your respective sympathies swing. So I can claim that as authorship. Of course it can only be objective to a certain degree, but my form of objectivity as a filmmaker was to embrace the theater in the business.

22 thoughts on “Going through the motions in The Great Happiness Space”

  1. I loved that documentary, especially because I work in Osaka, and sometimes encounter hosts on their way home from work in the morning. Many of the places featured are very familiar to me.

    I have one question (which was put to me by puzzled outside-of-Japan friends): why on earth are Japanese women so attracted to such effeminate males? None of those hosts would be regarded as attractive or desirable in most Western societies (correct me if you think I’m wrong). So, what’s the attraction for Japanese females?

  2. Miko: I’ve been pondering the question for years, ever since I began noticing “DHC For Men” ads on TV and felt compelled to write an article about how Japanese women foolishly complain about chest hair.

    I don’t think there’s any real answer aside from the fact that it’s cultural preference. While there are Japanese woman who like so-called “manly” men, I think the vast majority of them just prefer a guy with a bit less macho oomph. The larger question should be: Why do Japanese men feel compelled to look so effeminate??

  3. I enjoyed this film very much as well. But the question I guess I want to ask, as an American married to a native Japanese, is why do so many Western women prefer the big, macho types? 🙂

  4. I think Jake’s question-as-a-response is perhaps pointing to a clue… Probably because Japan has been a primarily agricultural and mercantile community for so long, men in high positions therefore historically tended to be not well built physically, because their work required more brain than brawn, which subsequently meant being physically strong was more likely a sign that a guy was a manual worker and had a low social ranking, just as tanned skin was.

  5. It all makes sense now. I’ve always wondered what the attraction was with kyabakura. In the end it’s just a matter of personal taste, a matter of what genre of entertainment you’re into I guess.

  6. The fear of body hair is not an exclusive thing to Japan. As a gym goer I can testify, from locker room experience, to a majority of males shaving off body hair. Personally, I’d never do that. It would lead to a rather lopsided look, as I wouldn’t be able to reach to shave the hairs on my back =D

  7. Geez, how quickly we Americans forget the 80s and the androgynous pop stars American girls were going nuts over back then.

  8. I watched this last year and the thing that struck me was the tragedy of it all…I thought it was clever the way it gradually unfolded and it became clear that the girls that frequented the club were sex workers themselves. And at least one of them had started working in the sex industry as a result of getting caught up in the host illusion if I remember rightly.

    But after reading this interview, I’m lead to believe that in fact the whole thing was an elaborate play in the hot/hostess style, with the subjects aware of their roles and speaking to the camera accordingly…is that right? Or did I misread it completely?

  9. Most Japanese women prefer men to be kawaii and hairiness goes against that ideal. An example of this is Hikawa Kiyoshi, his cuteness is what is reviving enka. Adam Yamaguchi of Current TV did a show about aging in Japan. One of the thing he tried to do was work as a host. He’s a goodlooking guy but he couldn’t get any women to buy him a drink because he’s not Kawaii. He was maybe 28 years old at the time but looked long in the tooth compared to the other men who were working as hosts. If this is a cultural thing it has spread to the US because Japanese women here don’t like facial and body hair either and that includes the women in my family.

  10. Interesting topic and comments! The famous Japanese artist Takashi Murakami talked about the adoption of infantile attitudes in Japan after the WWII defeat, which could account in part for effeminate looking men and the women who find them attractive. While a short time span within which to develop a considered judgement, the “kawai” phenomenon may be consistent with the idea of a culture reacting to the overly macho militaristic image of masculinity in Japan up through the war, as well as a retreat from the nationally-felt trauma of the atomic bomb and the shattering of the image of the emperor as divine.

    I find it interesting that what a good number of Japanese women seem to be attracted to western men (hair and all!)… perhaps the kawai hosts appeal more to a certain (e.g. fragile) female psychology….? A complex issue worthy of further investigation for certain!

  11. Whats this other film based on the same guys? I found it interesting and got onto a line of thinking maybe that the sex industry in Japan may be set up wholly to support salary men. Its certainly a logical circle and have looked for the other film but with no success. Can someone help me out please?

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