Love is just another commodity
these men are willing to sell.
I was excited to watch my first documentary about a slice of Japanese culture the other day, and the topic was appealing, too. After all, I’m planning a trip to Japan sometime in the near future, and after watching one of my shoujo favourites, Ouran High School Host Club, I’d joked about visiting a host club for myself. Who wouldn’t want to have tea with a cute boy who fawns all over you? I imagined that this documentary would be slightly seedier than Ouran, but I had no idea how vast the difference would be between my beloved fictional host club and real life.
The Great Happiness Space follows the daily (or rather, nightly) comings and goings of the most popular host club in Osaka, Rakkyo Café. Various hosts and their clients are interviewed, but the documentary most closely follows a young man named Issei who is both the owner of Rakkyo as well as the most requested host in the establishment. At this point I’ll go ahead and address my preconceived notions: I know that Ouran is a work of fiction, and is completely unfeasible because it takes place in a high school for the super rich. However, I imagined that an actual host club would follow somewhat along the same lines: women pay to have a drink and some conversation with a man of their choosing, and it would be sort of like a maid café without the cosplay or undertones of submission. As it turns out, host clubs are more like frat houses with light prostitution thrown in.
First the women choose a host from a book of glamor shots, then they sit back and let their host of choice talk with them and convince them to buy massive quantities of alcohol. Many of the hosts interviewed had a specific system for talking to the women and making them feel special which included scolding her at some point. I suppose because that’s what real friends do? It’s probably just my Western sensibility at work, but if I’m paying someone to flirt with me and he starts scolding me, I’d want my money back. Still, whatever they were doing seemed to be working. The female clients interviewed were all fairly smitten with the hosts and continued to return night after night, pouring hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars into the place in a single visit. Drinks were the main source of income, and hosts would try to convince the women to purchase a “champagne call.” That entails all of the hosts standing around the woman, chanting and yelling encouragement, while she chugs an entire bottle of champagne from what looks like a plastic beer pitcher with glowing ice cubes in it. It was difficult to tell who drank more, the women or the hosts. Many hosts drink far past any healthy level on a nightly basis, then have to pretend not to be drunk as they chat up the women. The goal is to get every women there to buy ten tons of booze, no matter if they’re buying for the hosts or themselves. As for the club itself, it was dark, filled with strobe lights, and looked like any run-down club you might find anywhere.
The hosts spoke to the camera about not trusting women, about wanting actual love relationships but not being sure if that would ever work for them. Sometimes they would sleep with a client, but they tried not to do that in order to keep them coming back for more. As for the women, most of the repeat clients were sex workers, which explains how they are able to spend such massive quantities of money during each visit. One woman spoke about how ashamed she was each time she sold her body and how she wanted to stop, but then each time she thought, “Well, now I can go to the host club!” That part got under my skin the most: first men buy their bodies, then the women have to spend all of the money that they made in order to buy transient feelings of love and self-worth. It was a perpetual cycle of hopelessness, and it was truly heart-wrenching to watch.
It seems that Jake Clennel, the British director, set out to expose audiences to the seedy underbelly of host clubs, and in that he did his job well. Having never been to Japan or experienced anything even remotely akin to a host club myself, I can’t tell if this documentary was specifically skewed to highlight the worst case scenarios of the industry, or if the business really is as sad as it seems. All I know is that it was highly unsettling to watch: I began the film as a bit of a lark, so I certainly wasn’t prepared for my shoujo bubble to be burst quite so tragically. Yes, I know that no real host club could ever be as shiny and filled with roses as Ouran, but still, the thought of such a place was rather charming. I loved the idea of a Tamaki or a Kyoya pouring me tea and calling me “princess” as a bit of light-hearted fun. However, Rakkyo was more like a sordid frat party where you’re more in danger of losing thousands of dollars than your virginity. There were no roses, no violins, no fine china, and no commoner’s coffee. Instead it was dingy booths, strobe lights, and cheap champagne disguised as expensive bubbly to go along with an army of jaded guys wearing suits and bleached visual kei haircuts. It was crystal clear what sorts of emotions the director was trying to invoke in his audience, and regardless of what the reality of a host club is like, he succeeded in making them out to be truly devastating, even more so to outsiders not familiar with the culture.
The Great Happiness Space is a run-of-the-mill documentary with nothing truly special or even engaging about it save for its risqué subject matter. However, if you’re anything like me, that subject matter will stay with you long after the credits have finished rolling. My best piece of advice to anyone who decides to embark on this sad and desolate journey is to have some shoujo anime nearby in order to cleanse your brain after viewing this documentary. I’ll take animated fictional love over this version of Happiness any day.
Rating: ★★ Watch if you’re curious or, say, writing a paper about host clubs, but be prepared for the unsettling feeling that follows.