The Great Happiness Space
When Men become Objects of Prey
Volume 12, Issue 1 (film review 1 in 2012). First published in ejcjs on 1 May 2012.
A Review of: The Great Happiness Space: Tale of an Osaka Love Thief (2006)
Director: Jake Clennell
Language: Japanese with English subtitles
Length: 75 min
There is a significant body of academic work devoted to the subject of mizu shōbai (‘water business’, ‘night time entertainment’) in Japan; however most of this is focused on businesses with conventional gender roles in which women are workers and men are customers. Much less attention is paid to the world of host clubs where the gender roles are reversed. Academic publications are scarce and the rare mentions of the subject in the Western media, such as magazines, newspapers and TV programs, are superficial and contradictory. The Great Happiness Space: Tale of an Osaka love Thief is the first Western full length documentary focused on depicting the world of host clubs.
The director, Jake Clennell, had no previous knowledge of the field when he became interested in the hosts he encountered on the streets of Osaka. Therefore, the documentary began in an exploratory fashion to serve as an introduction to the subject. The film presents mechanisms of work as well as personal relations in a host club through interviews with a number of hosts and customers, following them in the daily routines of one club, named Rakkyo.
In the West, the picture of geisha as the representation of the Japanese woman and Japanese culture is still resistant to newer images of contemporary reality. Whereas Japan is conventionally portrayed as a patriarchal society, and women as subservient and oppressed, the film provides an alternative insight into gender in Japan—in host clubs, the roles seem reversed. Women are the customers and men become products that are bought at a high price, to be used as one pleases and thrown away as soon as one becomes bored of them. Unlike other media publications, this documentary manages to convey the idea that there is in fact no simple reversal of gender roles. Some publications speculate that the phenomenon of host clubs is a sign of the grown power of women and acceptance of feminism. However the film presents ideas rather different from both the feminist pursuit of asexuality and the superiority of the empowered Western women over men, seen in somewhat similar Western contexts such as male strip clubs. It portrays women willingly and selflessly devoting themselves to men and paying not to rule over them but rather to “worship them financially.” At times the film shows that the women’s weaknesses are exploited and used against them, once again turning them into victims of male domination. At other times it reveals customers’ cold-blooded reasoning and hidden motivations, putting their victim status into question. The same women are shown to preserve certain conventional norms, such as displaying amae behaviour and placing high value on marriage, without apparent contradictions.
Males too are portrayed differently from such popular images as all Japanese men being salarymen or warriors, and are given voices to express their motivations, concerns and frustrations. At the same time, however, they are presented as being in roles more passive than what is considered conventionally masculine. Hosts are shown to be transformed into objects of prey, with beautification playing an important role in making them attractive to females, transcending the conventional gender divide. They are presented both as tactical manipulators, going to great lengths to make customers pay enormous amounts of money, and as conscientious and caring about their clients, even sentimental. The documentary therefore suggests an ambivalence of gender roles, the complex and constantly negotiated interconnections between sex and gender. Among other examples, it provides insight into the psychology of female mizu shōbai workers from an alternative perspective in an environment where they are not providing their services but are customers.
There is no voiceover in the documentary and the narrative is subtitled accurately, suggesting that the director did not construct any information and is not imposing any judgment on the viewers. This gives the impression that the characters tell their own story; however, both the interviews and the film itself are structured strategically. The documentary skillfully carries the viewer through a constructed narrative, building up presuppositions, suddenly destroying them, effectively eliciting surprise and discomfort, but also empathy. This makes the film different from many popular works, which distance the public from stereotypical representations of weird and exotic Japan. Concerning the credibility of interviews, the director skillfully shows that not everything said should be taken at face value, presenting contradicting statements—of which only one can be true—directly in sequence. In fact participation in the documentary itself appears to be used by some interviewees to achieve their personal goals, which, rather than affecting the credibility of the data, gives the viewer an insight into the psychology of the interviewees.
Since this film is not an academic work, some of the objectivity is sacrificed in order to create an impact on the audience. The documentary is based solely on observations in one club at one point in time. It does not provide any historical background on the subject, nor does it make clear the position of host clubs in Japanese society. The representation of the clientele is rather limited, presenting only customers who work in mizu shōbai, whereas research on the topic shows that the clientele is more varied, including business women, office ladies, students and more (see Takeyama, 2006). Whether due to the nature of the clientele in focus or to the selective choice of replies in attempt to impress the audience, the amounts paid by customers per day, 100,000 yen to 1,000,000 yen, seem rather exaggerated. Other sources estimate much lower figures, reporting an average of 25,000 yen spent per day (see Fulford, 2004; Wee, 2008).
Despite such issues, this documentary presents both the general public and academia with interesting and insightful information about an undeservedly understudied phenomenon. This documentary illustrates that studying phenomena such as host clubs, a social environment with a less conventional gender role distribution, could provide a broader view of the psychology of women, men and the negotiation of gender roles. Last but not least, it is a highly skilled piece of cinematography, which makes learning about this cultural phenomenon enjoyable to the public of all sorts.
Fulford, B., 2004. Memoirs of a Geisha guy. Forbes, [online] 01 December. Available at: http://www.forbes.com/global/2004/0112/081.html [accessed 8 August 2011]
Takeyama A., 2006. Beauty of Seduction in a Tokyo Host Club. International Institute for Asian Studies Newsletter 40: 9.
Wee, E., 2008. A life to die for. AsiaOne, [online] 15 April. Available at: http://www.asiaone.com/News/Latest+News/Asia/Story/A1Story20080415-59989.html [accessed 8 August 2011]
The Great Happiness Space: Tale of an Osaka Love Thief, 2006. Film. Directed by Jake Clennell. UK/USA: The Film Sales Company.
Article copyright Polina Kogan.