Lines are practiced, hair is teased, there’s primping and preening, and the very fine details of wardrobe are contemplated – better the hanging belt and unbuttoned shirt for that rakish yet rebellious look. This isn’t backstage at dinner theater, though. This is the world in the middle of the late night neon playground of Osaka in a host pub called Rakkyo.
A host pub is the male counterpart to a hostess pub, a place where patrons go to unwind , have drinks poured for them, and engage in light conversation with a companion, the host or hostess, of the establishment. In some places, though it’s generally frowned upon in the industry, it’s possible to go a little further. Jake Clennell’s 2006 documentary The Great Happiness Space looks at the world of Rakkyo, one such host pub and its 22-year old owner, Issei. The club is rife with effete young playboys with teased Final Fantasy-like hair slinging pick-up lines to young girls eager to relieve their paychecks for some fun and companionship. Meanwhile, the champagne flows, the cheap techno beats bounce, and the money trades hands like cards on Valentines Day.
The set-up is perfect for a scathing criticism of youth in modern Japan: they’re lost in a delusional world of commercial glitter and glamor and lacking in work ethic and know-how and it’s certainly the case that you might want to reach through the screen and shake the smugness out of them. For example, at one point, Issei, portrayed as the smoothest of the lot, states, “[The female clientele] are just happy to be with me.” However, Clennell is careful enough to never judge, but rather to portray the patrons and hosts of The Great Happiness Space almost as if they are actors in a play with Rakkyo as the stage.
This is not play acting though; the film deals with the very real emotions and how those emotions can be manipulated. About a third of the way into the movie, several patrons are revealed to be hostesses themselves as well as prostitutes, and soapland attendants. That those whose jobs involve the fulfillment of other’s physical needs sometimes at the expense of their own emotional needs then turn to the hosts of Rakkyo as an oasis to fulfill their emotional needs is an interesting quandry. Even Issei himself admits that “Work is work….once you get feelings involved, you lose”; meanwhile, his biggest customers admit to spending thousands in one night. What’s really missing, it’s revealed, is real emotions and relationships. Issei himself admits that, out of all the attention he commands, he wonders if he can ever really feel love toward someone though he does desire to try; a very disturbing thing to hear from someone whose age would normally reveal him to be a child in an adult’s world.
The title The Great Happiness Space, though seemingly “Japanglish”, appears to be an indirect nod to the “Floating World”. Also known as ukiyo in its native land, the “Floating World” represents the Japanese view of the evanescent, some may say hedonistic, ways of life Edo-era (roughly 17th – 18th century) life in Tokyo with its brothels, drinking establishments, and entertainment districts. Back then, the prevailing attitude was that this world was an impermanent and fleeting, in stark contrast to the responsibilities and duties of the “real” world. The “Floating World” was documented by ukiyo-e, woodblock art by now well-known artists such as Utamaro and Sharaku whose works captured the people, motifs, and designs that now define that era. With his directorial debut, Clennell manages to document a subsection of Japanese society that people know, but not understand, well: the ‘pleasure’ industry in its modern state, effectively today’s “Floating World”.