If you’re interested in how the concept of love operates within a country’s subculture.
It’s late at night. Both sides of the alleyway are lined with the glow of nacreous squares. Each of these neon signs mark a restaurant with waitresses clad in scanty uniforms — an otherwise thin veneer for a brothel. If Osaka’s red-light district were a woman, she’d be the queen of the cut and cleavage. Street lights and lanterns illuminate just enough to showcase the mama-san (an older, female proprietor) and one of her girls kneeling at the genkan (traditional Japanese entryway). “Dozo, onii-san.” “Welcome, young man,” she says.
What does the pursuit of love look like for a young woman who circulates through multiple lovers in a single night? Moreover, for money — sex as a transaction. Surprisingly, her romantic rendezvous remain within the red-light district. In other words, she, and many in her profession, head over to a host club during their spare time.
The Great Happiness Space: Tale of an Osaka Love Thief (2006) is an award-winning documentary that offers behind-the-scenes access to host clubs in Japan. Director Jake Clennell interviews the hosts and clientele of Café Rakkyo, a club in Osaka that keeps a staff of twenty young men training to be top escorts. More specifically, Clennell focuses on the experiences and insights of the enigmatic club owner Issei. For someone who’s never been to Osaka before, this documentary presents an intriguing first impression. The interface between reality and dream overlaps at an ambiguous area, and I can’t help but question the validity of love between the clientele and their male escorts.
If happiness is a feeling of positive high, then the film’s title suits the host club business. As one girl says, “It’s not about money. He listens to me. He entertains me. That’s enough to make me really happy.” On the other hand, based on the despondent dispositions caught on camera – from both parties – I am less apt to think of the host club as The Great Happiness Space and do wonder about the depth to which their emotional and physical needs are met. Surely consuming booze, false flattery, and sexual pleasure can’t be worth spending $1,000-$7,000/day? It certainly begs the question: how much does it cost to be loved?
The general manager explains how people come “to host clubs as space to rest their hearts.” It’s difficult to see how host clubs can coincide with a place of rest; everyone there seems restless. Even as the general manager is speaking, he’s crying. In the background of the shot, another host is crouched on the ground with his head in his arms. Issei, the high-ranking host himself, admits to being weary and distrustful. He says, “Maybe I’m emotionally damaged. If there are a hundred women in the room, I can’t trust one of them.”
From what I’ve watched, I can understand the appeal of host clubs. There’s a thespian quality of hosting that’s inviting and captivating for customers. They’re paying to be entertained by men who dress themselves up a certain way as to become objects of desire. The hosts are like actors who perform and recite lies in order to fabricate a fantasy world for their female audience. There’s even a special seat that can be equated to front row or balcony seats in that it affords privacy away from the other customers ($50/hr.). Needless to say, it’s the most expensive seat in the club. A certain security exists in isolating their happiness to this one place; there’s an immediate investment and return. For instance, purchase a champagne call and all the hosts flock to you. Once day breaks, this sense of security shatters. You return to the outside world to find that there’s a risk of giving and not receiving; you’re vulnerable to rejection and pain.
The presentation and language in this documentary contribute to the host club being a place to dream. Issei states that a host’s job is “selling dreams to people. In other words, we have fake love relationships.” The time customers choose to spend there can be anywhere from a few hours to the entire night, which might be compared to a length of a dream. The lights appear dim and hazy as well, which may imitate the sleeping state of being unconscious. Another similarity is revealed in the manner that the hosts close up shop. At the end of their work day, they’re sprawled on the couches. They help one another up, disheveled and disoriented, as if having just woken up from a dream.
One customer wonders, “Will I be with the famous Issei one day?” and another says, “My dream is to get married to Issei.” Can a host club cultivate the love that they claim to have when the establishment’s social constructs are built around a dream world — a place where lies are carefully and intentionally bred? In order to get the girls to spend more money, the host tries to prolong the time before they have sex as much as possible; after a customer finally does have sex with a host, she stops coming. One host comments, “At that point, there won’t be anything else I can give her.”
If you’re interested in how the concept of love operates within a country’s subculture, I highly recommend watching The Great Happiness Space: Tale of an Osaka Love Thief. And if you’re ever in Japan, perhaps schedule a rendezvous at the red-light district with a friend. See for yourself a side of the island country that many foreigners may not be accustomed to. Tread carefully, though. At nightfall, hosts and hostesses stand outside, ready to convince you to come in. Be firm in your “no,” if that’s your answer.