Review: The Great Happiness Space

The official cover, from the film’s website.

The Great Happiness Space is a 2006 documentary by UK filmmaker Jake Clennell. It’s not a new film, clearly, but I just saw it for the first time this week, so I’m going to go ahead and review it.

The film is about the host club culture in Japan, focusing on a single club (Club Rakkyo) in Osaka’s Shinsaibashi. There’s a Wikipedia article on host clubs, if you want to read up, but in short they’re places for women to spend ridiculous amounts of money so that attractive men will fawn over them while they all get very drunk. I’ve never been to a host club, so I don’t have any firsthand experience, but this is definitely an interesting foray into that world.

The film is composed of a combination of interviews, with hosts and girls who frequent the club, and footage of the club in action. Some of it feels staged, of course, though the number-one host Issei suggests that one of the girls is deliberately playing up her feelings for him on camera, as a sort of manipulative seduction. But in between those scenes that don’t come across as totally natural are interviews in which the hosts (particularly Issei) are clearly tired, worn down, and open, which makes up for it.

There’s actually quite a lot that’s genuine. Early on, the interviews are more polished, with a lot of stuff about selling dreams, but by the end Issei admits that a host’s job is really to lie to a woman and say that he loves her, when he doesn’t. And that’s okay because most of the women know it’s a lie and, moreover, go to multiple clubs and see multiple hosts. It’s all make-believe, no matter what Issei’s regulars say about being in love with him.

Ultimately, The Great Happiness Space is a deeply unhappy film about deeply unhappy people. Successful hosts make an outrageous amount of money (as much as 50,000 USD a month in some cases), but they’re destroying their bodies and their ability to form meaningful relationships in the process. Most of the women interviewed are nightlife workers (cabaret girls, hostesses, prostitutes) themselves and the hosts say that they’d like to have girlfriends, but have lost their ability to trust and be trustworthy.

If you’re interested in Japanese subculture, I recommend checking this film out. It’s a bit tiring, to be honest, but it will give you a good look into one of the darker sides of modern Japan. One that, interestingly, is not suffering in the recession. Is it the best documentary I’ve ever seen? No. But it is a good one that addresses a subject that doesn’t get very much attention.

B+

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Top Five Japanese Films

My top five, anyway. I’m not a professional film critic, just someone who loves cinema.

5. Ju-On (呪怨, The Grudge): 2003, Takashi Shimizu. This is actually the third film in the series, but the first to get a theatrical release. I love Japanese ghost stories and Ju-On, which is composed of six interconnected vignettes following the typical trope of the vengeful dead, is my favorite.

4. Ran (乱): 1985, Akira Kurosawa. Kurosawa’s final epic, and at 160 minutes it deserves that label. It’s a jidaigeki (period drama) about a Sengoku Era warlord who decides to abdicate in favor of his three sons. It’s a mix of King Lear and the legends of Mori Motonari. Long, but brilliant.

3. Tokyo Story (東京物語): 1953, Yasujiro Ozu. Tokyo Story is a slow, simple film about an elderly couple who visit their grown children in Tokyo. It contrasts their indifferent biological children with the kindness of their daughter-in-law, and it’s still a beautiful piece of cinema 60 years later.

2. Princess Mononoke (もののけ姫): 1997, Hayao Miyazaki. An animated jidaigeki, set during the Muromachi Period, with a healthy dose of fantasy. It’s about the struggle between the spirit guardians of the forest and the humans of Iron Town who are destroying it. It’s gorgeous.

1. Rashomon (羅生門): 1950, Akira Kurosawa. The film that put Japanese cinema on the map. A samurai has been murdered and four people tell their versions of what happened. The film lent its name to the Rashomon Effect, which refers to the effect of perception and subjectivity on memory. Not only one of Japan’s best films, but one of the best films ever made period.

And there you have it, my top five favorite Japanese films! I tried to keep it varied, but Kurosawa crept in twice. I went back and forth for a while on whether number four was going to be Seven Samurai or Ran and went with Ran because it’s less famous. I’m pretty sure all these films can be found outside of Japan, so check them out!