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The Great Happiness Space: Tale of an Osaka Love Thief

Posted by Kelly S. Osato, April 8, 2010 09:51am | Post a Comment
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For many citizens of the Western hemisphere Japan remains a strange place chock full of exotic and inscrutable cultural asymmetries. It is a place where paying to "fall in love" with a stranger you cannot meet outside of a designated place, you cannot call upon as need dictates and, in many cases, you cannot touch under any circumstances whatsoever is sometimes preferred to falling in love the complicated way, the old fashioned way, for mutual appreciation's sake. But then perhaps that is what makes so many Japanese justify the risk of succumbing to economic ruin to patronize hostess and host bars, financially worshiping their quarries, spending as much as $10,000 a night to ultimately "fall in love" with their fantasies. Seeing this kind of scenario playing out over and over again like a demented, downward spiraling carousel in The Great Happiness Space: Tale of an Osaka Love Thief, a documentary feature that vignettes the life and times of Rakkyo Cafe (a popular Osaka host bar) with special focus fixed on their top selling host, Issei (22), and the staff of twenty young male escorts who all benefit from Issei's tutelage, is a compelling voyeuristic experience so emotionally harrowing that it almost made me wish my heart were a stomach so that it could barf.
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I remember my first exposure to the world of hosts and host bars in the form of a brochure put into the basket of my bicycle as I passed through a busy intersection in Osaka. I had no idea what manner of publication it was; upon first glance I assumed that it was some kind of fashion magazine judging by the pretty girls on the cover, but perusing it later I realized that the the girls were actually boys and the fashion magazine was more like a catalog of host bar "menus" displaying glossy over-lit portraits of the boys whose companionship you would purchase for a spell buffered by ads calling for young women who fancied designer goods and other expensive sundries to consider employment of a certain kind to support their extravagant tastes. The general obscenity of these ads, however, took a backseat to my immediate fascination with the appearance of the hosts, whose hair-stories and accessorized flair shared a similarity of outlandishness that baffled my mind delightfully. It was like flipping through a guide for a zoo that specialized in Japanese peacocks who all toiled to attain a similar high-style reminiscent of any tough British rock star who sold out in the eighties. I have to admit I was taken with the absurd cocksure posturing, but do these men really possess a vision of what women want by Japanese standards? Definitely one of those things that make you go hmmm...
host bar group photo hosts great happiness space tale osaka love thief documentary japan culture nightlife
While watching The Great Happiness Space wasn't a total downer, it packed none of the laughs I expected to glean from my limited exposure to what I considered to be the most ridiculous existence of hosts and the host bar phenomenon. Though I think this film would make for great conversation concerning gender issues, I also didn't get the impression that the lady patrons of Rakkyo Cafe's hosts were winning anything back for the oppressed women of Japan like I had expected. Indeed, their role in the host/client relationship signifies a double-victimization for women in that the men exercise absolute control of their many paid relationships plus the fact that the majority of Rakkyo Cafe's regulars interviewed for the film held jobs in the mizu shobai, Japan's nightlife working sector, whether they be employed at cabarets, hostess bars, touch bars, "soap lands," or engage in outright prostitution in order to capably afford satisfying their need to feel needed by their host of choice and, at Rakkyo Cafe, Issei-san is most definitely in high demand.
great happiness space issei number one host tale of an osaka love thief japan culture host bar nightlife
But what makes Issei so popular? According to his co-workers he's a master of his trade, saying and doing anything women want of him, all the while reading any situation he finds himself in and playing the role that best suits his clients' needs and his desire to ultimately maintain command of the money flow. This has also put him in a position of getting as much ass as he gets cash, "I was having nonstop sex," he says of his ascension to the top-selling host in his district and his willingness to let women have their way with him -- "sex with 365 girls a year." So many of Issei's regular girls openly claim an addiction to his person, one completely whacked chick claiming that her "life without Issei is unimaginable right now," that watching his interactions with them casts a shadow over his character, a demonizing that Issei himself recognizes as one of the many hazards of the job. He also is forced by trade to consume more alcohol in an evening than most folks do in a month, as much as ten bottles of champagne per night, drinking, throwing up and drinking as many times as necessary just to keep it up. "I think my liver is fucked," he says. Of course, the hosts at Rakkyo Cafe are available by the hour for their company but they also depend on generating revenue by pushing pricey drinks on their patronesses. Bottles of champagne, consumed by the disco-lit pitcher-full, range from $250 to $600 for average priced fare and up to $5,000 for the high rollers. There is also at least one exclusive seat in the house: if Issei is entertaining ladies in the main part of the bar a client can pay a premium for a private audience with Issei in a special seat secluded from the crowd for an additional charge of $50 per hour, which, now keep in mind that average hosts earn a monthly paycheck of $10,000, for Issei-san a good month usually nets $50,000 --- cha-ching!
great happiness space osaka host bar minami issei japanese culture nightlife city
However, the scene fades to its bleakest when the hosts, after hours, talk each other out of feeling any moral conflict for leading their clients forever onwards, breaking hearts, emptying wallets and enabling young women to sell flesh for the purpose of supporting such an costly addiction as pleasurable soul-searching with the boys of Rakkyo Cafe. This film draws the viewer into the never-neverland that is the Osaka host bar scene, portrays the twisted interrelationships inherent to the varied and never-short-on-creativity nightlife industries in Japan without taking sides, and forces viewers to explore their own conclusions in the end. Thanks to this excellent documentary I am pleased to know more about this subject than I'd have ever learned flipping through my slick souvenir host catalog I received once upon a time in Osaka and I find that I am plagued with a host, pun intended, of real questions concerning the host bar phenomenon that weren't answered or even addressed by this film. Here's hoping there are others like The Great Happiness Space director Jake Clennell who seek to shed more light on the intricacies that lie down the darkened corridors of Japan's modern "Floating World."

Perennial Melodies: Sukiyaki for the Sentimental

Posted by Kelly S. Osato, March 28, 2010 02:39pm | Post a Comment
A few weeks ago the vocalist Eduard Khil and his heart-swelling vocal flexes were nothing to me, but now I cannot think of a day gone by without my acknowledging the impression his song has left on my heart. For those who've yet to encounter Khil, his claim to international stardom comes of the internet meme known as "Trololololololololololo," a video clip circa 1976 that features a dapper dandy (Khil) vocalizing a song called "I Am Glad To Be Finally Returning Home" with plenty of laughing ha-hahs and hearty bellowing tro-lo-los as he gestures with casual fluidity, occasionally directing viewers to consider the paltriness of the set pieces that flank him. It is an aural and visual happy-pill dressed in sunny yellow, an upper to be taken when the spirit lags and, for about the last two weeks, it's been the very first thing I enjoy in the morning. 


As if the simple joy and outdated charm of that performance alone wasn't enough to make me fall head over feet for Eduard Khil, he has since been featured in another recent post, a Russian press interview, showing Khil sitting down to view his viral video along with several parodies of it added into the mix (including one starring recent Academy Award recipient Christoph Waltz as seen on Jimmy Kimmel Live!). Khil's delightful reactions to these parodies and subsequent video statement in which he addresses the people of the world to invent lyrics to the much beloved song (which, according to Khil, originally flaunted rather raunchy lyrics --- so naughty in fact that they were never published, but decidedly ditched the for trololo vocalization in hopes that the song stood a chance at being appreciated but for its melody). He then suggests that everyone choose a time to gather and synchronize (via the internet ) to sing their version of the song all together, in their own tongue, in the style of "We Are The World." Okay, so he doesn't mention "We Are The World," but of course he doesn't have to, the sentiment is there, especially as, according to Khil, the song is about returning home and, in his mind, the newfound popularity of his tune represents an eternal homecoming of sorts, and a happy one at that. Bravo Eduard Khil and Спасибо.
sakamoto kyu kyuu ue wo muite arukou single sukiyaki 45rpm cover art
Digesting Khil's suggestion that the world set out to celebrate our affection for a singular melody, his melody, by independently crafting original lyrics to accompany a borrowed tune recalled to mind a sweet, bewitching song that I first heard many years ago in an elementary level Japanese class: Sakamoto Kyu's (坂本 九) sentimental hit "Ue wo Muite Arukou" or "I Walk With My Head Held High." Though introduced as a classroom exercise, I became one of many folks in that class who couldn't shake the lovely melancholy of such a tune, even if we couldn't understand everything Sakamoto-san crooned. Like the Russian "homecoming" song, the sentiment of acute longing and heartache expressed in Sakamoto's song, regardless of the presence of meaningful lyrics (and the potential inability to make sense of them), is clearly understood simply because of its perfectly crafted, jaunty-yet-melancholy melody. In fact, this song topped the U.S. Billboard charts for three weeks in 1963 under the title "Sukiyaki" (renamed because the execs at Capitol and HMV thought the original title too difficult to pronounce and/or remember). To date, Sakamoto Kyu's hit single has been the only song sung entirely in Japanese to ever top the charts in the states and it is the only Japanese song to ever enter the U.K. Billboard charts. Indeed, it must be all about that [sigh] sentimental melody. 
a taste of honey sukiyaki sakamoto kyu japanese song cover single hit sentimental song
And it's that melody that has been, for better or worse, shanghaied halfway 'round the world, the old fashioned way (that is, without knowledge of its being taken until it "arrives"), as a borrowed tune dressed in several languages, most notably as the sentimental slow jam "Sukiyaki" performed in 1981 by A Taste of Honey, the disco ensemble famous for crafting the hit dance single "Boogie Oogie Oogie." All I have to say is thank heavens they resisted suggestions to turn Sakamoto's tune into a disco jam, instead opting for turning it out as a soft-focused ballad which probably has everything to do with the song becoming Honey's final number one single of their career. Unlike Eduard Khil, however, Kyu Sakamoto cared not for the Misses Honey's take on his wistful walk-a-long hit and reportedly sued Capital Records for copyright infringement, a litigious action that pantsed those who had thought the song fruit of the public domain tree, ripe for the taking, and so plucked the tune and inanely kept the altered name "Sukiyaki."
sukiyaki hot pot japanese dish sakamoto kyu a taste of honey love song
By the way, sukiyaki (a Japanese steam-pot dish) has next to nothing to do with the original lyrics of Sakamoto's song or the romantic interpretation laid down by Honey's Janice Marie Johnson, who found that English translations of "Ue wo Muite Arukou" could be viewed three ways: as a man on his way to his execution, as someone trying to be optimistic despite life's trials, or as the story of an ended love affair (of course she opted to paint the English lyrics in the waning light of a love gone bad). My favorite quote related to the ridiculousness of naming a song for a word that is short, catchy, recognizably Japanese and familiar to English speakers comes from a Newsweek columnist who reportedly likened naming Sakamoto's song "Sukiyaki" to issuing a popular tune like "Moon River" in Japan under the title "Beef Stew," a total wah-waah.
4pm sukiyaki a taste of honey sakamoto kyu
Of course there have been other takes on the popular tune, mostly covers of A Taste of Honey's "Sukiyaki" rather than further takes on Kyu Sakamoto's crooning hit, but there's certainly nothing like the real thing. Featured below are several videos, the first being a 1963 video of Sakamoto himself walking and singing "Ue wo Muite Arukou" with his head held high ("so the tears down fall from my eyes" according to the original Japanese lyrics) followed by a live performance of "Sukiyaki" by A Taste of Honey complete with the aforementioned Johnson and bandmate Hazel Payne clad in kimonos, koto accompanyment on the song, finished with a whispered "sayonara" at the end. Then we have a 1995 version of "Sukiyaki" delivered by American R&B ensemble 4 P.M. (p.s. did they gank that set from that Heavy D & the Boys video for "Now That We Found Love" or what) and then a live version of "Sukiyaki" en Español as performed by Selena on the Johnny Canales Show.

Vagabonds of the Western World

Posted by Kelly S. Osato, March 17, 2010 05:21pm | Post a Comment
thin lizzy live phil lynott irish rock band
Happy St. Patrick's Day, everyone! While you suck down a shamrock shake or a Guinness float (it's a little toastier than usual here in San Francisco at present) or sip on some whiskey from the jar-o today, please remember to raise your glass and toast the greatest rock band to ever come out of Ireland; this one's for Thin Lizzy!


What can I say about Thin Lizzy that hasn't already been said? To quote Peter May, "when Thin Lizzy first hit the pubs in Dublin in 1970 they were quickly heralded as the best band since Van Morrison's Them." With a long list of classic/ hard rock radio hits like "The Boys are Back in Town," "Whiskey in the Jar," "Jailbreak," and the Bob Seger penned "Rosalie," Thin Lizzy and their particular brand of vagabond rocker timelessness stands forever poised to span the annals of rock 'n' roll legend despite the early death of founding frontman and bassist Phil Lynott at the age of thirty-six. Revered by longhairs young and old and frequently lovingly covered by the likes of Iron Maiden, Motorhead and Metallica, there is no evidence that the adoration rockers around the world feel for Lynott and the many skilled members of his skinny Lizzy throughout the years will ever fade away. 
thin lizzy phil lynott irish rock band jailbreak 1975
This Friday night, March 19th, at Amoeba Music San Francisco, I'll be spinning nothing but Thin Lizzy in tribute to the world's greatest Irish rock band. I'll be focusing on the more Irish influenced Lizzy jams and other choice deep cuts like the title track from Thin Lizzy's third album, Vagabonds of the Western World (a favorite of mine and one that sadly, along with several other Lizzy releases, never gets any play in the store -- an oversight I seek to remedy). Got a request? Come on down and lay it on me -- especially if it's something you think I don't have. I'm more than a fan, baby, I'm cruisin in the Lizzy mobile!

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Make Mine A Triple: Joanna Newsom says, "Have One On Me"

Posted by Kelly S. Osato, February 22, 2010 02:09am | Post a Comment
Joanna Newsom Have One On Me Record review drag city art deco cover image album
Have you ever been so hungry for something, a rare treat that smelled so good sizzling on the coals, that against your better judgement, you burned your mouth in your wolfing haste to taste it? Upon procuring my copy of Joanna Newsom's latest opus, the fresh-from-the-fire triple LP Have One On Me, Christmas morning-ish feelings of borderline maniacal anticipation welled up in my belly and I imagined my immediate consumption would be not unlike taking a rich, slow-baked indulgence dish to the face and, Lord knows, how I tried. Eighteen songs and two hours later I felt pleased to have a feel for the depth and complexity of the bounty, but proper digestion recommends dipping in --- all the better to savor the flavor. Seriously folks, this big 'un is a whole mess of treasure that takes time --- sweet, precious time --- to appreciate in both fathomed comprehension and measured worth. So approach with a mind to settle in and absorb each third accordingly, one by one (because you know we'll be referring to them from now 'til eternity, respectively, as record one, record two and record three), and be sure to make time and take it, like Joanna's first cooing words on the opening track, "easyeasy."

"Easy"
joanna newsom have one on me legs lithe album artwork record review black and white pretty
Have One On Me as a complete work, generally speaking, plays like an almanac harkening a bygone age which, when you think about it, encompasses everything we've come to expect from Miss Newsom. The album artwork appears to draw heavily on art deco influences, what with the choice of typography, the subtle design notions featured on the insert and, of course, the cover image in which we see Newsom, sprawled kittenish on a couch, pictured in what appears to be a vintage tinted photograph of a disheveled dressing room decorated by a deranged zoologist. And it's all show inside as well: the black box houses three individually sleeved albums and a booklet packed with lyrics, credits, and a curious lack of thanks set against a series of four, seemingly sequential black and white candid shots of our girl in a simplified portrait setting evoking a subdued recollection of the madness depicted on the cover, looking very lithe, long-limbed and undeniably beautiful in bib-and-brace short-shorts (something tells me this look'll be trending a little while longer) as she twists her hair in a fix, gorgeous. Then there is the music.
joanna newsom triple album record review have one on me ys street band live
For me, Joanna Newsom is as much Elton John on holiday as she is a harp-wielding Morgan le Fay. "Easy," the opening number, showcases the shadow and the light of Newsom's "Elton" leanings, that is to say, her ability to lay down a playful yet solid piano track that is as much of a portal unto itself as it is a portent of things to come. "Easy" begins slightly dormant in bed, yawning with lyrics suggesting the movements of a doomed relationship from contentedness to conflict to confrontation and, interestingly enough in the end, to conjuring. It's good stuff and good enough to rouse the listener into readiness for the multi-instrument maelstrom of musicianship to come in the eleven minute title track where Newsom flaunts her penchant for folklore and the storytelling origins of the bard instrument that have sensationalized her skills internationally. The song "Have One On Me," like "Easy," features a host of arrangements around Newsom's central vocals and instrumentation, providing a lushness very much like that of Van Dyke Parks' orchestral wizardry that graced the strains of Ys, not to mention the four man and a lady Ys Street Band (still a corn-nut of a moniker) that provided a miraculously scaled-down live distillation of the aforementioned orchestration on a scattering of instruments for Newsom's Ys tour (three of the original five comprise the core of the guest players on the new record). I suppose that's why Newsom claims that Have One On Me reflects an amalgam of her previous works. 
joanna newsom have one on me album review record harp strings harpist
While there are a few uncluttered, straightforward harp or piano plus vocal compositions on the record, many of the songs are dressed up in one way or another with arrangements attributed to the guest musicians themselves, some of whom play such exotic oddments as timpani, kora, Bulgarian tambura, kaval, vielle, rebec, and coronet (the bulk of the latter lending "Kingfisher," on record three, courtly virtue). Still, at first spin, these endowments make for a complicated, tight-lipped listen that takes a little getting used to and may, at least in my case, leave the listener wondering what some of these songs might sound like en deshabille. Still again, what works for songs like "Go Long," where Newsom plays three harps (!), and the jaunty seventies (1970's, not 1870's or earlier like some of Newsom's other pieces suggest) feel of "Good Intentions Paving Company" is the motley mélange of guitars, percussion, banjo, mandolin, trombone, piano and (especially!) the warm waves of the Hammond organ and layered vocal harmonies à la Joni Mitchell or Fleetwood Mac or --- so clearly single-worthy a track it was no mistake that it was leaked as a teaser (in fact, all the pre-release date treats are stand out numbers by now, just as surely as impatient hunger for the feast has broken them in). 

Briny Bivalve Soundings: Ween vinyl reissues hit the shelves this week!

Posted by Kelly S. Osato, February 13, 2010 07:41am | Post a Comment
ween vinyl reissue the  mollusk colored turquoise alternative rock 90's ocean jam dean gene 180 gram
For all of us who slept on the bus and thus failed to jump on the limited edition Ween 1996-2000 vinyl box set that dropped last September, don't fret, because all three Ween albums are now available for individual sale, finally! Personally speaking, I feel like I've been waiting for ages, however patiently, to get my paws on The Mollusk, pressed on 180 gram lushly marbled turquoise vinyl no less. The other two albums in the series of three released this week include 12 Golden Country Greats and White Pepper, also pressed on 180 gram colored vinyl, brown and white I believe, respectively. Happiness! 

Like many others to come of age in the early nineties, Ween played an important part in my grasping a hold of reality and flinging it as far as I imagined I could away from the mundane commonplace-ness of everyday happenings. I was first exposed to the idiot dance of Ween's Pure Guava by a small, motley crew of arty stoners I'd sometimes roll home with after school for lack of anything better to do. It didn't take long for me to need Ween; I became a fast fan when I discovered that their kooky alterna-jams are the best thing to ween dean and gene alternative rock listen to when everyone else around you is high and all you wanna do is interpretive dance. It helped that MTV liked them too and that, what with the awful death of Headbangers Ball, 120 Minutes made Ween's "Push th' Little Daisies" video a played out hit. I thought Ween could never top themselves after Pure Guava. I mean, Chocolate and Cheese is fun and 12 Golden Country Greats is a pants-ripping hoot and everything, but The Mollusk is, in my opinion, Ween's finest work to date. 

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