As the credits rolled at the end of “The Great Happiness Space: Tale of an Osaka Love Thief” (2006), I immediately thought of “Leaving Las Vegas,” “The Grifters,” and “Requiem for a Dream,” three feature films that have also left me with a similar sense of numbness and depression. All of these films are about addiction, and the people who fall into an endless cycle of abuse. But what makes “The Great Happiness Space” stand out from the other three is it isn’t fiction.
Documentary filmmaker Jake Clennell trains his camera on the “Stylish Club Rakkyo,” a “boys host club” in Minami, which is in Osaka City, Japan. Its twenty-something owner, Issei, tells us early on that his club ranks among the Top 10 most popular in the city, which is quite a feat considering the fact that the streets are lined with them. He has 20 employees, all of them about his age, who spend their salaries on looking good for the ladies. Demonstrating how much cultures differ in terms of beauty, the filmmaker shows the men primping in the mirror. They fluff their highlighted, asymmetrical hairstyles; color in their eyebrows; and don plenty of “accessories,” including Dolce & Gabbana belts, gold necklaces, earrings and sunglasses. How can they afford to look so good? As Issei confesses, his most inexperienced employees pull down about $10,000 a month; he, himself, as the No. 1 host, makes between $40,000 to $50,000 per month.
But wait, before you think about buying a ticket for Osaka so that you can cash in on “selling dreams to women,” consider the evidence. Only one in 100 men trying out for the job make it, and few new hires last more than one year. Why? Because like prostitutes, these guys stand outside of the club essentially humiliating themselves. They slavishly follow women down the street, trying to convince them to come inside and spend money, while the women ignore them or even laugh at them. Once a host gets a woman inside, he has to cater to her every whim, which means that if she wants him to drink alcohol until he’s sick, he has to do it. Issei confesses that some nights he can consume up to 10 bottles of champagne. He drinks, throws it up, and drinks again. My liver is probably fucked up, he says, then admits that he’s seen other guys throwing up blood. As if that isn’t enough, night after night, the men have the guilt associated with lying to the women’s faces – telling them how beautiful they are and saying how they love them. Issei vacillates on this issue, saying in one breathe that he loves his customers, and in another saying that once the women decide to end their “relationship,” he has to find a way to keep stringing them along. The men use every trick to extract every possible yen from the women. In one very uncomfortable scene, several of them manipulate a long-time, rather timid customer named Natsue to open a champagne bottle for every year she’s come to the club. Despite her protests, they pop another cork. This probably wouldn’t be a big deal except for the fact that the champagne ranges in price from a couple of hundred dollars to $5,000 a bottle.
About halfway into the documentary, I kept thinking, “What in the world do these women do to afford this host club?” (When interviewed, customers admitted to coming several times a week and dropping $1,000 to $5,000 a day. The highest paying customer that Issei had seen, he said, spent between $37,000 to $40,000 in one day.) If possible, this is where “The Great Happiness Space” takes an even sadder turn. The customers, most of them in their 20s, are either hosts at gentlemen’s clubs or they are straight-out prostitutes. (Issei says that some customers actually turn to prostitution so they can keep coming back.) One guilt-stricken woman admits that after a long day or night of satisfying lonely businessmen, she heads over to a host club to essentially get drunk, be lied to, and have her money frittered away on a dream of falling in love. Many of the girls gush that they love Issei and want nothing more than to marry him. But in the next moment, we find out that most have boyfriends and that they all frequent other host clubs. Who is lying to whom?
Why would you bother to watch the ironically titled “The Great Happiness Space?” It is fascinating, and it draws you into a world that you wouldn’t normally experience. Like any good documentary filmmaker, Clennell doesn’t condemn his subjects or pass judgment on them. He shows us every angle, and lets us make up our own minds as to how to view the situation. I myself felt sorry for these people because although they admit that they want happiness, they don’t know the first thing about what that word means. They are rich, but they are miserable. Issei wants to have a wife someday, but his livelihood has undoubtedly made that impossible. He says he is phobic of people, probably because he’s always manipulating them and thinking of them in terms of yen. He also spends so much time “playing the game” that he doesn’t even know who he is anymore. Who is Issei? He’s not sure. Watching these men stumble out into the daylight, still drunk and exhausted from a long night of partying, made me wonder how long they will maintain their health or sanity. I can imagine that suicide – already high in Japan – is a frequent visitor to this group. An even bigger question is – what will any of them do once their “cute” factor fades with age? (Japan is a youth obsessed culture, considering anyone beyond 30 as ancient.)
“The Great Happiness Space” it’s a definite must-see for Japanophiles. I only wish more documentaries like this existed. Sure it’s a kick in the gut, but it’s the kind that makes you richer for the experience.
Jake Clennell (director)