The Great Happiness Space:
Tale Of An Osaka Love Thief

Documentaries have the unfair reputation of being dry, boring, and uninteresting. The film-goers who scorn them are usually the type who also avoid subtitled or black and white movies. Or perhaps they are the people who restrict themselves to fiction rather than nonfiction, opining that imaginary stories are more interesting. This need not be a concern. A good documentary is one that exposes a real phenomenon which would otherwise escape the notice of the average person. Life is already plenty interesting; fiction need not be the only source of the fantastic. Indeed, is not truth stranger? It is commonly remarked after hearing a wild but true story that "you can't make this stuff up." The documentarian's task is to observe and explore these aspects of life.

The Great Happiness Space, a 2006 documentary by Jake Clennel, is a fascinating look at Japanese host clubs (one in particular is featured, the "Stylish Cafe Rakkyu"). A good portion of the scenes are inside the club, either during business hours or not. The documentary follows the classic format of interviews broken up by firsthand shots of the subject matter. In this case, the interviews are with regular host club clients, some of the workers, and the owner, Issei. The interview scenes with Issei are almost all taken from a single session, comprise a large bulk of the film, and are the most interesting and revealing parts of The Great Happiness Space.

A host club is an establishment that exists for young women who desire to spend a night drinking with handsome young men. This is the business. A host club employs several charming young Japanese men, attractive in a very feminine, bishonen-style way. The girls come in (often with friends in tow), buy drinks, and enjoy themselves. The hosts are picked from a menu and exist as rented drinking partners, shoulders to cry on, boyfriends, father figures, or prostitutes. Whatever money the customer spends, the host receives. The girls sometimes spend thousands of dollars (USD) in one night. Osaka has over a hundred host clubs.

In the evening, some of the hosts go out and stand in the street, looking for potential customers. They are very persistent with their advertising, following giggling pairs of girls down the street and joking around with them. All hosts claim to have a sense of the woman at first sight, and adapt their personality to fit the target. This is of course a necessary skill for entertaining people all night at close range. As far as the footage shows, it doesn't seem like picking up random girls is too successful an approach. Most girls laugh it off or ignore it completely. Most customers are likely returning ones who develop long-term relationships with certain hosts. These relationships are totally fake, and this concept is central to the film.

Issei sums up his business as "selling dreams to people," by which he means young women. The hosts feign to be in love with their clients, and the clients reciprocate. As the film progresses, the viewer feels increasingly uncomfortable as they discover the clients are perhaps not faking it. Revealing interviews with regulars confirm this. Many girls profess their love for Issei, who is by far the most popular host at his club. One admits she actually broke off an engagement to be free for Issei, and all of them dream about the day when Issei will marry them. These girls are probably in the minority overall; for the most part, customers catch on to the fake boyfriend idea and don't take it too far. The return customers are the problem. They also have no illusions that Issei cares only for them. They are all aware of his work and what it demands of him, but they believe that one day, he'll cast it off and take her away.

Issei isn't stupid or cold-hearted. He sees how things are and it clearly upsets him, but he accepts it as part of the job. He claims to make between $20,000 and $50,000 (USD) a month, so that is one reason he copes with it. This is not a typical salary, but rather the top salary in the business. Osaka is famous for host clubs, Rakkyu is one of the most popular clubs in the city, and Issei is the most popular host in the club. Nevertheless, the other hosts make anywhere from $2,000 to $40,000 a month average, depending on their popularity and personality. For a young man, this kind of money along with unlimited sex and alcohol can be very persuasive. The broken hearts of a few girls who take things too seriously are simply collateral damage, though as the viewer will see later in the film, things aren't quite as they seem.

About halfway through The Great Happiness Space, it is revealed that many of the girls who are being interviewed (the regulars, who fancy themselves Issei's future brides) are prostitutes, call girls, and soapland workers. Some work in bars as the female equivalent of a host, talking and drinking with male patrons. They make about the same amount of money. The viewer begins to forgive the hosts for leading these girls on, because those who have fallen in love with their hosts do the exact same thing to other men at their job, and even other hosts at other clubs. The girls identify with the hosts, and perhaps their hosts are the only men who can identify with them.

When the viewer realizes the nature of this symbiotic relationship, the host club begins to make sense. There are the occasional customers who just want sex out of the deal, and they usually get it. One host explains that these girls rarely return. The bulk of the regular customers (one call girl claims that they make up 70% of the host club clientele) are not after a physical relationship, due to the nature of their work. They likely find it difficult to pursue a normal romance, also due to their work, and so host clubs present reasonable alternatives. Issei tells one girl (though it may be one of the many lies he necessarily tells them) that all of his long-term girlfriends had been his host club customers first. Host clubs don't exist purely for prostitutes, but they do provide a valuable counterpart to the industry. Issei points out (and many of the girls confirm) that if they were not prostitutes, they would neither need nor be able to afford regular trips to the host club. It is a self-sustaining system.

If the concept of the host club is clear at this point, it is still difficult to understand the hosts and clients themselves. At first it appears that the host is deceiving the client, pretending to be in love with them and treating them like princesses. But the client understands that this is their job, and they play along, obviously enjoying it. Under that layer though, some girls really do believe the host is sincere. They understand that the pandering is all fake and part of routine, but they believe they have an understanding with the host to go through these motions while hiding their true feelings. There are many layers of deception, and it is sad to watch these girls get lost under them. The film exposes this, both in private interviews and in actual, heartbreaking interactions.

The final scene of The Great Happiness Space is perfect. After an hour of watching people drinking, singing, and yelling, the viewer is a little tired. Imagine how the hosts feel. They literally party all night, every night. Issei claims at one point in his interview that he may drink ten bottles of champagne in one night. Hosts throw up multiple times a night. In the morning they shuffle out of the building, clearly exhausted. Some lean against the wall, waving off their friends. Supported by their coworkers, they blink in the sunlight and fumble with cellphones. They say goodbye, head home to sleep, and prepare to do it all over again.

The Great Happiness Space is one of the best documentaries I have ever seen. It starts out by introducing and explaining the idea of a host club. To most Westerners, host clubs are probably as obscure as soaplands, and the idea will probably be a bit strange to them. It then goes straight to the heart of the industry by interviewing one of the top hosts in Japan. The viewer's opinion of Issei ranges from fondness to disgust and back again, many times over. Ultimately, sympathy for him prevails as the viewer gains some understanding of the world he lives in, and the people he deals with. The host club reality is so far removed from normal daily life, it seems like pure fiction, but clearly it is not.

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