The lives of the hosts and their customers at first seemed to be extreme and unfathomably foreign from a western perspective. Although many people in Japan see hosts as despicable, I see hosts involved in something that is close to all of our hearts, which is the struggle between making a buck and doing the right thing. There is real fascination in looking at this strange form of emotional pseudo prostitution that caters to some women’s desires so successfully that they will got to almost any lengths, and pay thousands of dollars to consume it. — Jake Clennell, Director The phenomenon of the male host club has been sweeping Japan for some time now. These men in some instances have even become pseudo celebrities appearing on billboards and even on television shows. Simply put, women come to host clubs and pay for attention and affection, creating a fictional relationship with their host. My own first encounter into this world came from my fifteen-year-old sister. As she visited me over the summer she introduced me to an anime called Ouran High School Host Club. As she struggled to explain to me what a host club was and what the anime was about, I found myself baffled with the idea that it was acceptable to my sister, the notion of men giving their affections for a price. These were serious themes that an anime had depicted as entertaining and even normal.
Sort of jap-english expressions, that we felt sort of had a ring to it.
The Great Happiness Space: Tale of an Osaka Love Thief depicts the male host club in its entirety. The film shows the story of Issei, a twenty-something Japanese businessman. His business? He runs the most successful male host club in the city of Osaka. Issei is well dressed in expensive suits, his hair is coiffed perfectly and he displays an air of confidence that draw women to him again and again. He greatly encourages this because that’s how he earns his money. The documentary is able to capture the essential reality of why male host clubs have become so successful. Director Jake Clennell puts it best, “love was an important factor in everybody’s life.” Here’s Asiance’s interview with director Jake Clennell.
ASIANCE: How did you first get interested in this project?
Jake: Well, I was shooting a field documentary for PBS on high school baseball and it was quite an involved sort of very well planned project. We had been there shooting in Osaka for a couple of months. The shoot was very, sort of, what is the word, very right wing stuff, inside of the Japanese mind (life?). We were dealing with a lot of bureaucracy mostly. I’d sit on the bridge you see in the film and as I sort of sat there I saw these sort of peacocks walking past, these kind of beautiful guys and they were continually trying to pick up women and it was just they seemed so you know, beautifully art directed and also very insular in their world. This became fascinating to me and slowly but surely I worked out what was going on.
ASIANCE: What did you do to prepare for this movie?
Jake: There’s a lot of advertisement for the clubs in magazines and in the red light district around Osaka. I had a couple of Japanese friends and of course only women go to these clubs, men don’t really go to the club. So as a man it was quite difficult and I had to go accompanied by one or two Japanese women, in order to even get through the door. My Japanese isn’t fluent, it’s actually very limited and the clubs really aren’t looking for foreign guys to roll in because they have no reason to be there. They aren’t really going to spend money. And of course Japanese people are usually quite polite. So they might let me into the club for a minute and come back & check that I wasn’t going to cause trouble or something. I did look at a number of different places but what I really ended up doing was sort of find out who was the most successful host. The most famous host was in Osaka. Sort of through my network of friends in Japan, I saw if I had any connection to him. Eventually I did have a connection to him. And slowly but surely built a relationship with Issei.
ASIANCE: When you started filming, were the people and the hosts comfortable with that?
Jake: Well, I think there is a period when you start any documentary you start filming your subject and they get to know you and you get to know them. And one had to take ones cues from the atmosphere in the club. They are celebrities in a strange way in that they are very, very polite service oriented celebrities, sort of… I shot the film with a very small crew, basically it was me and a translator. What I tried to do is be as differential and invisible as possible in the club not really making friends particularly early on, but just sort of keeping my nose down and shooting what I was told to shoot. Then obviously, as I spent more time there, it got later and later into the night and people had been drinking more. People just relaxed and you’re just the guy that’s around. Eventually after a number of nights people got used to be being there. And once the host started ignoring me and everybody started ignoring me and it really became a kind of magical situation. I mean mostly they were ignoring me and some of the time I couldn’t understand what they were talking about. So I just ignored them so noone would necessarily react to what I was saying. I was just sort of there as a part of the scene. The host club is a little bit like a cabaret show, there’s a sense of performance. It’s not totally off the cards that there might be cameras around.
ASIANCE: How long was the filming process for you?
Jake: I was there for two and a half months, to which a good month of that was research on host clubs and research on the great happiness space before I even shot a frame of the documentary. I was slowly figuring out what was going on and meeting people. And I shot for about 3 weeks and then I returned about 8 months later and shot for another two weeks.
ASIANCE: Did you go back to film again to see what happened to the club after?
Jake: I think there’s a tendency in many documentaries to shoot. Even though the great happiness space was shot over one span of reasonable time, the truth is that the footage you see on the screen, 99 % of it was shot in a very short space of time. The reason it ended up like that was because the footage that we got in the can was in the first instances where everybody opened up, sort of spontaneous atmosphere. There were certain scenes I shot later on when I had more insight into what was going on. Even though there may have been a different take or slightly different question that was asked, it didn’t have the spontaneous feeling that I hoped the film had and I hope the film sort of feels like a wide-eyed exploration of an unknown universe. I hope the film has a sense of curiosity to somebody walking into an environment that they don’t know or particularly understand. I guess what I’m trying to say is what you see on the screen really took place mostly in the course of a few nights.
ASIANCE: How did you come up with the title for the documentary?
Jake: The title for the documentary was sort of an amalgamation of various things that had been in host club literature. There are things that we have sort of changed that hosts said about themselves or hosts had on their cards or came up with, sort of jap-english expressions, that we felt sort of had a ring to it. It seems to work, its one of the longer titles but I think it speaks to your head.
ASIANCE: What did you want to convey to audiences? What did you want to get out of the film?
Jake: As a documentary filmmaker, my approach is to convey as much as possible to the audience what I felt or what I saw. I think that one really struggles to make it entertaining. That’s one primary responsibility of the job. We really wanted this to feel like a movie that may have surprises; make it have an arc of thought and make people confused but see the contradictions which is imminent in that situation, particularly this idea of who is exploiting who. It is a big question in the film. And there are things I wanted them to feel in the beginning. There are things that I wanted to feel in the middle and things that I wanted them to feel in the end. I would say that in the beginning I wanted them to feel curious, in the middle you know I wanted them to feel possibly outraged and in the end I wanted them to feel we all have something in common and that love was an important factor in everybody’s life. That was an important thing to people in the film.
ASIANCE: Would you say that the theme of love is what’s universal about your film that both men and women can relate too?
Jake: I hope so, yea, I really do. It was the biggest question for me in the film, the idea of love and what people had to say about love and to a large extent my only responsibility to my own creative impulse, at least, was to have that addressed. I think one of the things, when I went back, was readdress the subject of love and had people talk about it more. The things that people do say about love are very real and very spontaneous. I think that’s why they have a certain power because I think it’s understated. And I hope that’s why people do feel that personal sense of heartbreak in the film. There were many men that came out of it from the cinema that were probably more teary eyed than women, which is something that I find very interesting. I think men really come out of it with a sense of despair.
ASIANCE: From the beginning of the project to the end, did your views on the culture change or did it stay consistent?
Jake: I tried to offer a sense of respect and truth to the characters in the film. The film is a microcosm of human expression, of human relationships in the struggle of love and resource. I think it’s a microcosm of what it is to be in that struggle as a very young person and I think that’s what the film offers. A look at how similar we all are whether we are Japanese, American, or British, when we’re 20, we’re all sort of desperately in love and desperately involved in testing the parameters of the game of love. It is a microcosm of Japanese culture definitely yes and definitely not. Are there are elements in hosting that are sort of unique to Japanese culture and in some ways not particularly reflective of the culture? I think there’s a unique quality that sort of inspires me to ask the question of the universal element of love. What I’m trying to convey is that it’s definitely not an attempt to say where people are in Japan. It’s an attempt to say look at what happened in this tiny nightclub on the fifth floor of the backstreet in the second largest city of this big country in the year of 2006. The Great Happiness Space: Tale of an Osaka Love Thief is the winner of the Best Documentary award at the 2006 Edinburgh International Film Festival.