The idea of a host or hostess club may sound strange to Westerners, yet Japan counts hundreds of such clubs as part of its broad mizu-shobai (nightlife) industry.
The role of a host or hostess in a Japanese club is to provide a relaxing space for their customers who have likely just finished work. The host/hostess is attentive to the customer; he or she refills the customers’ drinks, lights their cigarettes
and most importantly provides light and flirtatious conversation. The hostess’ goal is to become so attractive in the eyes of the customer that he will return often, purchase more expensive drinks, and invite her out to dinner — all earning the hostess a boost in commission.
The hostess club has made its way in to the Western media by means of Kate Casphaw’s character in the U.S. movie set in Osaka, Black Rain, and in scholarly work by Anne Allison and Lisa Louis, two American women who had worked as hostesses in Tokyo and Kyoto. The male equivalent, the host club had remained relatively unexplored until the release of the 2006 documentary The Great Happiness Space: Tale of an Osaka Love Thief.
Directed by British filmmaker Jake Clennell, The Great Happiness Space takes place entirely in Osaka’s most popular host club Café Rakkyo. The main focus of attention is Rakkyo’s number-one host Issei and the female customers who come regularly to spend time with him. Issei is handsome and stylish, and the money he pulls in is extraordinary. Issei talks openly about the tried and tested techniques he uses to make this money. First, he says, he flatters and charms the customers: “Girls tend to appreciate superficial sweetness,” he says. Then “the girls start to open up and trust me… and then “we scold her”. Issei is shown scolding his customers, telling them to grow up and become better people, it appears as though this is out of genuine concern.
Now that he has their trust Issei finds it easier to ask them for the more expensive bottles of champagne and to manipulate his customers into coming to the club more often. When one asks him if he thinks they would ever have a chance at a real relationship outside of the club, he demurs and says that he only knows that his future girlfriend will “have to be a long term customer.”
The next part of the documentary focuses on the Japanese women who visit the club. It comes as a surprise to learn that all of Issei’s customers are also night workers – they describe themselves as fuzoku, translated in the subtitles as prostitute. The depth of connection between their jobs and the host club is revealed when one of the women says that if she had never started going to Rakkyo, she never would have started working in the sex industry. One customer says, “70 or 80 percent of a host’s earnings come from fuzoku clients…we can talk about anything and they don’t look down on what we do.”
None of this has gone unnoticed by Issei and his fellow hosts, despite giving the illusion of always having fun, they all admit to feeling guilty at times. The final part of The Great Happiness Space reveals a shadow over the endless party a host’s work appears to be. We see just how trying the job can be, from dealing with abusive customers to whom the host must not talk back to, to the tolls of drinking (in Issei’s estimation) ten bottles of champagne every night, to the emotional damage the job has left him with: “If there are 100 women in the room I can’t trust one of them.”
The result is a fascinating, in depth and well-balanced view of the Japanese host club. Through Issei and his workmates at Café Rakkyo, we see the good, the bad and the ugly of what might at first seem like the easiest job in the world.