Title: The Great Happiness Space
Director: Jake Clennell
Notes: This isn’t a “Japanese Film” per se, it’s a British Documentary on a Japanese cultural phenomenon. For some reason there’s no trailers online, but you can find the entire movie streaming if you know what Google is. It’s also on Netflix, if you’re American.
TLDR: A documentary crew spends time in a male host club in Osaka.
Japan, You Don’t Have to Put Out That Red Light
Where I live, the red-light district isn’t hidden, it’s stuck between two major mainstream shopping areas. It’s always a little awkward to pass through. You never know who’s going to see you or, perhaps even more troubling for a school teacher, who you’re going to see.
There are “information booths” right on the edge of the neighborhood, accessible on the main road, and inside there are catalogs of girls – and men – so you can decide who you want to see. Some of them are prostitutes, some of them offer massages, others are hostesses.
Foreigners in these places make the burly men outside the clubs a little nervous, because they usually don’t want you there. Foreigners tend not to know the rules. They get too drunk, too loud, and sometimes too aggressive. After all, there’s a bit of a culture here – with hostesses, especially – that is far more intricate than the relationship between clients and sex workers in the States.
At a hostess club, most of the women will never have sex with you. You’re paying them for the opportunity to fall in love. It’s a modern version of the Geisha: A beautiful woman, a private setting, a deep conversation about any topic with a girl who pours your drinks and listens to your troubles. And you pay, by the hour.
You might never touch the girl. Depends on the bar.
You’re never in danger hanging out in these streets. There’s even a festival in this part of town where the sex workers and hostesses get together and have a parade, with all the women getting together to carry a large object through the streets in typical Japanese fashion. The male hosts wear costumes – last time there was a Spiderman and a Barack Obama – and dance around with champagne bottles.
It’s pretty convenient, as shortcuts go, and so I’ve ended up taking a lot of notes on the men and women who hang out in the street trying to hustle clients to come party at a club for a set fee. The women mostly stay inside – after all, men know where to find them.
Like Some Cat From Japan
But the male hosts are out on the sidewalks. They’ve got their Dolce and Gabbana belts and expesively tattered Victorian-era goth jackets and shirts that shouldn’t be so expensive. They’ve got that Japanese “wolf hair,” dyed blonde or red, spiked at the front and an ever-present mullet, the Asian versions of Ziggy Stardust.
They’re always smoking and wandering around chatting up girls. An outsider might assume they were just a bunch of rich, fashionable dudes trying to score. And in a way, that’s true. But they’re not looking for action. They’re looking for clients.
The Great Happiness Space
The Great Happiness Space is a British documentary about a host club in Osaka, one of the most famous in Japan. The men in the club (contrary to my first guesses when I saw the billboards) don’t provide sexual services to gay men. They’re actually used by women. And while hosts could sleep with their clients, they usually don’t. For very practical business reasons.
Instead, hosts, at their worst, are a mix between hot, binge-drinking therapists and emotionally abusive pimps. Different guys lean toward different extremes. Different women seek out different things. And a lot of money changes hands.
Honne and Tatamae
The film highlights a troublesome aspects of Japanese culture, which is the way truth and superficial appearances are often interchangeable. It strikes some foreigners as naïve, and others as deceptive. And when presented with fictions that mask harsher realities, many foreigners feel betrayed.
The Japanese rack it up to honne and tatamae. Honne is the word for the true feelings and yearning natural to any human being, while tatamae – quite literally, “the facade,” – is the appearance kept up in public. Of course, plenty of people are skipping out of this dichotomy and always have. But the idea is fundamental: Japanese culture is very concerned with keeping up appearances.
It keeps things tidy. Drama, and complaining, is at odds with that famous Japanese stoicism. And so children are taught to embrace the surface out of obligation to others, because it feels better to keep up that social harmony, to stay connected and to embrace the emotional satisfaction of stability.
This embrace of the surface, if taken too far, makes it remarkably easy to stop yourself from evaluating authenticity, or even being concerned with it. That’s the business plan of a host club.
Women are aware that they’re paying for an illusion, but the illusion is still satisfying an emotional need. All of these women live in a world dominated by tatamae (appearances), so they can embrace the surface without wondering about the reality for as long as they can psychologically and financially afford it.
One post-modern Japanese philosopher and cultural critic, Miyadai Shinji, has written that, “the search for a ‘deep self’ beneath one’s socially and commercially mapped surface is meaningless.” And that’s the theory in a host club, where you can buy a bottle of champagne and let commerce wash away any difference between what you want and what is true.
Buddhists have always known about the world-as-illusion, long before post-modern philosophers started writing books about “simulacrum” or college kids started deconstructing The Matrix Trilogy. Buddhism has always warned that embracing appearances is delusional – it even has an angry spirit, Fudo Myo-o, who carries a noose to drag you through your delusions, liberating you to see the world as it is.
But these women – and the hosts themselves – aren’t theories. They have real identities, authentic and troubled selves, being handed over to illusions for an hourly rate. It’s troubling to watch these women as they teeter – on one side, they are the “in-control” consumer of love songs and romance novels and on the other, they’re emotionally damaged, and delusional.
The men react as if their job is to keep a candle on the women’s flesh for as long as possible without the women flinching. They seem frustrated about how long women will endure the burning while paying for the privilege. The men make up their own stories, paint their own interpretations of what they do, and work through another set of illusions and delusions to justify their work.
They stay aloof and distant, and, like everyone else in the film, they’re visibly damaged.
Somewhere between these projected worlds is the host club, where two sets of gendered delusions somehow overlap. And then they binge drink.
One longs to see an angry liberating spirit burst through the walls with a noose.