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.



Review: Kotoba! App

About three weeks ago (three? I think it was three) I bought an iPod Touch. This was not because I needed a new iPod (my 60GB classic iPod is going strong), but because I am weak for shiny new technology that can do shiny things. But I didn’t buy it for what might be considered a normal reason, no, I bought it to help me study Japanese. I’ll say that again: I bought an iPod Touch to help me study.

You see, I do not have an electronic dictionary (電子辞書) and have often felt the lack. But a really good one, the kind with a touch screen and stylus so you can write the kanji you want to look up, is very expensive and comes laden with features that I would likely never figure out how (or why) to use. You can get a simple, basic one for around $100, but kanji are my eternal stumbling point and I need the ability to search by copying them down and finding the right one. Enter the iPod Touch, or iPhone if you have one of those instead, which has a brilliant app called Kotoba! The exclamation point is part of the name, by the way.

Kotoba!’s logo, found via Google Images.

Kotoba! is a multilingual Japanese dictionary that comes with extra features I will, and do, use. The dictionary is embedded, which means you don’t need an internet connection to use it, and while the primary function is Japanese-English, and the reverse, it does have a pretty decent selection in other languages. You never know, at some point I could need to know how to say, I don’t know, dictionary in German. It could happen. Each entry also has example sentences and breaks down the kanji for you, and you can search both by text input and by writing the kanji on the screen with your finger.

Did I mention it’s also free?

The other function that I’ve been obsessed with this week is the kanji study tools. It has all of the JLPT kanji, divided up by level (on the old system, so only four), as well as kanji as taught by grade level in Japanese schools. Each kanji entry has all the readings, the meaning in English, the radicals, the number of strokes, a bunch of information I have no use for, and an animation in the top corner showing the order and direction of the strokes. This is important because stroke order actually does matter. I mean, it doesn’t really make them look different unless you’re doing calligraphy, but you are supposed to know them.

Honestly, it’s a fantastic app. I’m really happy with it. The one potential negative is stroke order related: when you try to look up a kanji by writing it on the touch screen, if the stroke order is messed up it can’t find it. So it can be frustrating trying to find a kanji when your guess as to the order it’s written in is wrong. But arguably that can be a good motivation to actually memorize that sort of thing, which is easier said than done. When you have almost 2,000 characters to learn, in order to achieve literacy, you start to resent the little nit-picky bits pretty early on.

So, yes, if you have an iPhone or iPod Touch, and want a good Japanese dictionary, I recommend Kotoba! Like I said, it’s free, so how can you go wrong?

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be off using my iPod for the other purpose it was clearly designed for: Angry Birds.