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.
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...
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.
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!
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."