In the Japan of the 21st century, love is a commodity

A review of The Great Happiness Space 

Tekst: Titus Scholten

In the film The Great Happiness Space, directed by Jake Clennell, we follow the hosts of club Rakkyo in Osaka who earn their living by facilitating affection. The business model is simple: the club hosts facilitate a good time with whomever is buying their time. They drink, laugh, touch, and hint to the idea of love, but never cross the professional line. Night in and night out, these men flirt with their female customers and coax them into spending copious amounts of money on food and alcohol. The more they spend, the more flirty the male club hosts become. The less they spend, the more disinterested they become. The veneer of affection is thin and both parties, in varying degrees, realise this. Despite this, host clubs make a hefty profit. It’s a delicate balancing play between genuinely felt affection and the selling of said affection. 70 percent of customers in these host clubs are themselves female prostitutes who are not always comfortable in the line of work they are doing and have the need to be loved. These host clubs feed off a perpetual need for love that is eternally promised but never returned. They are stuck in a reinforcing loop of love-giving and love-needing, always one degree of distance away from being fulfilled, fueled by a nightmarish lack of affection on both sides, and the hypnotic stroboscope of Osaka’s nightlife.

When watching the film, what struck me was the way in which the hosts explain their position in the dynamic between themselves and the customers. They are fully cognisant of the fact that they sell a ‘dream’. The more real the dream seems, the more these women fall in love with them and spend money on them to ensure their continued affection. Despite this clearly unequal power relationship, these male club hosts still develop feelings for their customers. I think the following scene from the film The Great Happiness Space best exemplifies this sentiment. In the scene, a younger host confesses that he is developing feelings for one of his clients to Issei, the most experienced of the hosts and the owner of club Rakkyo.

‘It might sound funny but I want our relationship to last’

‘You can’t work as a host if you let yourself get attached. To be honest, I have feelings for my clients too, and that’s exactly what prevents me from making more than $50,000 a month’

‘I can’t help caring’

‘That’s OK’

An economy which is based on emotional services provided, has been called ‘affect economy’. This affect economy is something that has been conceptualised in academic literature by Takeyama, who looked at the host clubs in Japan through this conceptual lense. In Takeyama (2010), affective labor is described as labor which ‘produces and manipulates affect such as romantic feelings, companionship, and a sense of well-being’. Affective labor is a major part of an affect economy, which aims to make a profit off of what people ‘feel’ they want or need. In the host clubs, the main feeling that is being sold is ‘love’, or, simply, ‘attention’. In the hosts’ case, the more one cares about their individual customers, the less they earn. However, in order to keep ‘selling the dream’, one should develop some feelings for their customers to allow for a modicum of sincerity to exist, lest these customers become disillusioned.

If it is ‘only love’, one doesn’t need to spend all that money. If it is only business, there is no incentive to return. Because what is ultimately sold is the idea of love. The promise of true love, alongside the easy access of love because of its nature as a business, is what makes customers come back to their hosts. This balance is what the ‘dream’ that is being sold entails: not being entirely sure of either the love or business aspect, but wanting to find out if it is genuine or only business. It can only exist in the space of doubt. The ‘precarity of soul’, exemplified in the metaphor of the dream, is commodified and capitalised on. It thrives on unstability. The Great Happiness Space displays this struggle in a hauntingly honest and brutally sincere depiction of Japan’s commodification of love.