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Buried Treasure
The Great Happiness Space

by Justin Sevakis,
"It is absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious."

- Oscar Wilde

By now, most anime fans are familiar with the idea of Host Clubs. Thanks partly to the success of Ouran High School Host Club, and partly due to some mainstream American media attention they've gotten (usually with a hint of "look, those sexist Japanese troglodytes now have male geisha! hur hur" in them). But as familiar and as popular as the concept is among Western fangirls, few of them have ever experienced one, and very few really knows what goes on behind the scenes.

For this week's Buried Treasure, we'll take a break from reviewing old anime and instead look at a unique, moving documentary on one particular host club on Osaka. After going to many film festivals, it's out on DVD in limited form, and is absolutely fascinating look at that world, wrinkles and all. But it's just hard enough to find that most anime fans will probably never stumble across it.

Tale of an Osaka Love Thief

The Great Happiness Space is the story of a host club in the Minami district of Osaka called "Stylish Café Rakkyo," a loud, lively bar with karaoke and a young clientele base. It's the number one host club in the area, and even advertises on TV. Its proprietor and #1 draw is a guy named Issei. He gets whatever girls he wants. ("I was having sex with 365 girls a year," he boasts.) And he makes a RIDICULOUS amount of money: up to US$50,000 a month. Dressed in designer couture and preening relentlessly, Issei and his team of pretty boys go out on the street every night to hustle up some customers.

It's hard to argue that this is a parasitical life. Girls come in and drop an obscene amount of money -- often thousands of dollars at a time -- to spend some time with these attractive, fun guys. Alcohol flows like water. Like the gang from Ouran, the guys are all good-looking, quirky, charming and utter players. But as often happens in social circles, the underlying interplay is much more complicated, and far more interesting than what can be observed on the surface.

To those who have seen Ouran, the sight of girls, giddy with delight, glomming onto their attractive host is a familiar one. "Four years ago, it would have excited me," Issei says, "but not anymore. It's rather stressful to me. I've been told [I love you] too many times. And I'm not bragging."

If only it stopped at "I love you." Every girl is after something different. For some, it's sex. (Give it to her, and she probably won't ever need to come back.) For others it's just a chat, a foot-rub, a boyfriend for the evening. They drink, they flirt, they roughhouse, they play around, and they get to be treated like princesses.

British director Jake Clennell happened across Rakkyo while he was in Osaka shooting another film. It's an odd sight to see, for a foreigner: these suave, impeccably dressed young men systematically pursuing women on the street, and most of them running away and turning them down. After a brief chat, the veteran cameraman and TV documentary director got Issei's permission to film, well, everything. Nearly nothing is cut out from what Clennell witnessed over the following two weeks.

The first sign that this isn't exactly the most healthy lifestyle in the world is mentioned early. Physically, there's a huge toll, as anyone over 25 who's tried to party all night can attest to. The girls often demand the guys to down entire bottles of champagne, usually in a for-hire ceremony called a Champagne Call, costing up to several thousand dollars a bottle. They're supposed to share it with their dedicated host while being cheered on by the rest of the staff, but usually the host drinks it all for them. Issei typically downs well over ten bottles a night, and throws up two or three times. "I've seen guys throw up blood," he says. "My liver's probably shot."

Both the hosts and their clients are stunningly honest. The clientele couldn't be happier. "They've changed my life," is not an uncommon sentiment among them. They've fallen in love with the hosts, and are all too happy to pay a few hundred dollars a night to pretend that they're in a relationship with them. "I'd love to marry Issei," they say. He has a kind way about him, and is always ready to entertain them with ideas that they might, someday, end up together.

Issei's people-pleasing nature is entirely a façade. "We have to keep them happy, so when we have to lie, we lie. If I were honest, many girls would hate me." The idea is to keep them coming back, so they act as a tease. They'd never dream of dating most of these girls seriously. Some of them truly make one recoil inside.

And where are they getting so much money? As it turns out, the majority of them are either hostesses themselves, or fuzoku, sex workers at places like soaplands and image clubs. Left with an abundance of money and a lack of self-worth and responsibility, they become Rakkyo's most frequent clients, paying several thousand dollars a night.

This complicates things greatly. The girls become addicted to the power over men they get at the host clubs, using them as a combination of healing and subtle revenge for their day jobs. The mutual head games are endless. One girl (who Issei reveals later is the bane of his existence) has a long conversation with him about "their relationship," trying to argue that it's high time he quit the club and marry her once and for all. It's a serious conversation for her, and Issei, cornered, is trying his best to stay non-committal without pissing her off. In a private interview she says that being his wife is her dream... but she's also visiting COUNTLESS other host clubs as well.

Some (many) of the guys worry that they're enabling these women to continue their life as prostitutes, and indeed Rakkyo has a strict policy not to take advantage of them when they're too sloshed to be thinking clearly. It's a horrible, guilty thing to think about, to become the object of a broken woman's affection, to the point where she will continue destroying herself to continue a non-existent relationship. Issei often finds himself having to talk some of the more sensitive guys out of a pretty dark place. He struggles with this issue himself, but it's usually only a matter of minutes until one of his customers, on a catty power trip, inevitably reaffirms why he doesn't trust women.

On the other hand, for many of these women, the hosts are simply all they have. One younger host breaks down during his interview. "They have a lot of money, but so few are content with their lives... They want to fall in love, they want to feel needed, and they all come to this space. People are not so strong, especially alone. Even though [we charge a lot of money,] they still say 'thank you' when they walk out the door."

Clennell returned a year later to Rakkyo to visit Issei and the boys, and many of the ones he'd profiled were still working there. He was amazed at how the job had aged them: though only a year had passed, the lifestyle was clearly taking a physical toll. Though they were still in their (very) early 20s, they looked quite a bit older. Indeed, most hosts don't last more than a month. I asked Clennell where all the money went, and apparently many are working class boys trying to provide for their families. (I admit, I'm a little skeptical of their sob stories, as told by a Japanese newsmagazine, which involved medical bills for sick mothers.)

Issei may never get married or have a happy life. "I've been working as a host for so long, I've kind of forgotten who I am," he says, while another host admits, "you start to have a numb feeling... I still think a girl is pretty or beautiful, but to us they're customers, and I start thinking about my sales figure. It turns into a mess." At the end of each night, long after daylight has broken, most of the guys are so tired/drunk that they can barely stand. They ladle themselves into the back seat of a cab. After ten bottles of champagne I can't even imagine the hangover the next day.

Clennell is quick to point out that he has no way of knowing if Rakkyo, or even the time he spent observing Rakkyo, is typical among host clubs. The film is simply a short window into this strange, strange life of being a boyfriend for hire, and the various strange and bizarre complications therein. But this may be selling the film a bit short. We see such an intimate glimpse of these people, it's impossible not to see a bit of ourselves in them; the strange emotional dance between customer and host isn't entirely unlike some real relationships that many of us are intimately familiar with.

After all, as Misato Katsuragi once said, what is sex but "two lonely people being lonely together?"

A Abundant. Available anywhere that carries anime.
C Common. In print, and always available online.
R1 US release out of print, still in stock most places.
R2 US release out of print, not easy to find.
R3 Import only, but it has English on it.
R4 Import only. Fansubs commonly available.
R5 Import only, and out of print. Fansubs might be out there.
R6 Import long out of print. No fansubs are known to exist.
R7 Very rare. Limited import release or aired on TV with no video release. No fansubs known to exist.
R8 Never been on the market. Almost impossible to obtain.
Adapted from Soviet-Awards.com.

Where to get it:
The Great Happiness Space is available exclusively through Netflix in the United States, either as a rental or streaming, through their Red Envelope Entertainment division. It's not available for purchase, though I found a few copies on Amazon Marketplace for quite a bit of money. A better option for those looking to own the film would be buying the Canadian release from Mongrel Media, which is available from Amazon.ca for far less. It can also occasionally be found on television in various countries.

The film has never been released in Japan. Clennell mentioned that there have been so many host club exposés on TV (in typical over-the-top TV news style) that nobody particularly cared about a Westerner's perspective on them, and despite having won prizes at myriad festivals worldwide the Japanese festivals weren't interested in screening it.

Screenshots ©2006 Jake Clennell. Ouran High School Host Club. © Bisco Hatori / Hakusensha © NTV / VAP / BONES / Hakusensha.

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