In The Great Happiness Space I was introduced to the world of Japanese “host clubs”, something I (as a Westerner) had never heard of before. The focus of the film is Cafe Rakkyo, the most popular host club in Osaka, Japan. Here, in Cafe Rakkyo, women compete for the attention of men by spending money on champagne, VIP seats, and even the hosts themselves. The hottest host in the hottest club in all of Osaka is Issei, an attractive and stylish young Japanese man around whom most of the documentary focuses on.
Initially host clubs may sound a bit like strip clubs with the male/female roles reversed, but that’s not quite right. While strip clubs revolve around sex, host clubs are more about attention. In fact, as one of the hosts explains to viewers, sex is just about the worst thing that can happen between a host and a client, as the goal of every host is to string his clients along as long as possible and drain them financially.
Women arriving at Cafe Rakkyo (which looks like a modern restaurant, dance club, and lounge all rolled into one location) pick their hosts out of a book full of photographs. There are many more clients than hosts, so each host must entertain multiple women at the same time — sometimes in the same part of the club, sometimes in different areas. The women compete by spending money, and the hosts respond by showering the high rollers with attention. With club bottles of champagne costing between $250 and $600, an evening at the host club can get very expensive, very quickly. In one scene we watch the hosts badger a customer into buying five bottles of champagne, one for each year she’s been coming to the host club. Despite her protests, the hosts surround her and convince her into buying “one more bottle”. As the final bottle is guzzled, all the hosts gather round, the DJ chants her name, and for 30 seconds or so, the client has bought happiness.
Each day before the club opens, the lesser-known hosts hit the streets in an attempt to drum up business. Rain or shine, they stand around talking to women, attempting to lure them to the club. During one rainy afternoon, one of the hosts yells at a woman, “it’s acid rain! You’re going to go bald! Come inside!” For the most part the women of Osaka seem to know the score and none of them appear particularly interested in the men’s offers — still, like e-mail spam, it must have some success rate or people wouldn’t do it.
As the film progresses viewers begin to realize that all of the on-screen relationships we see are sham. Behind closed doors, when one of the hosts struggles with guilt from stringing women along in exchange for cash, Issei tells him to man up. “We sell dreams here,” he says. Issei admits to bringing in anywhere from $30k-$50k a month, and several of the female clients interviewed admit to spending thousands of dollars each visit. Most of the women can afford this because, we learn, they are prostitutes. These same women who men pay money to have physical relationships with pay the hosts for emotional relationships. Some of the hosts are emotionally drained from all the attention, and admit they have no way of (or interest in) finding women outside the club. Inside the club the hosts have prostitutes vying for the attention; outside, they can’t even get a date. My perception of which are the hunters and which are the hunted changed several times while watching the documentary.
One prostitute in particular shares that she has spent around $30,000 on Issei alone (she considers it “an investment in their future together”). We see the two of them cuddling on a couch and hugging in an elevator before she has to leave. Issei walks her to a waiting cab and, while waving at her as the taxi pulls away, tells viewers how much he can’t stand her. “It’s that kind of client that makes me sick,” he says. Moments later his cell phone rings, and it’s her. “Like I’m going to answer that,” he says. “Shit.”
But all of that sadness goes away when the doors open. Then, the hosts are “on” and the women line up for their adoration. The hosts know they are selling a fake emotional relationship, and the clients know that the men only give them attention while they spend money. (“I think they are all liars,” one client says. “I don’t trust any of them.”) None of this matters when the music gets cranked up and the alcohol begins to flow.
As the movie comes to a close we see the hosts closing up shop and going home. One is so drunk and passed out he has to be lifted up and walked to the elevator. One host, in his stylish clothes, hat and sunglasses, climbs onto a girl’s bicycle and pedals off. A few of the others pour themselves into a taxi cab. Issei, on the outside, doesn’t look too much worse for the wear. “Sometimes I drink 10 bottles of champagne a night,” he admits, “but I try to vomit some of it back up.” On the inside though, one can only wonder what kind of toll the host clubs will eventually take on its and their clients.
The Great Happiness Space is both addictive and repulsive, enthralling and disgusting. If it’s true only the lonely can play, the host clubs of Osaka are the playground.