The Great Happiness Space: Tale of an Osaka Love Thief is a documentary about a Japanese club where women buy the company of male prostitutes. In style it is one of those bare bones documentaries that just presents interviews with the principals and footage from the club, with little or nothing in the way of additional context, background or narration.
I found it at least somewhat interesting throughout, but I don’t know that I needed a full length movie on the topic. I probably would have gotten 80% as much out of a well-edited short film that was 40% as long.
What is striking to me is how many surprises there are in the film. First, that such a club even exists, since we’re so used to thinking that it is only men who pay for prostitution—the conventional reasons being that just about any woman can get sex without paying for it, and that women typically aren’t as interested in the kind of sex without emotional connection that prostitution represents. (So this marks my second foray into this subject since commencing these movie essays, joining Heading South, a fictional treatment of women buying male prostitutes in Haiti.)
The next surprise is that the club is nothing unique, but in fact is one of many of its kind in Japan. Furthermore the clientele are hardly the sort you’d think would have no option but to buy male companionship. They are all reasonably young, and—though I’m not fully up on Japanese standards of female beauty—they all seem average to very good looking. (This is certainly not the case with the prostitution depicted in Heading South.)
I also was surprised how naïve most of the women seem. Certainly it’s not unheard of for a male to fall for a prostitute and think that their act is something more than an act and there really is a connection between them, but that’s very much the exception. But perhaps because women have more of a need for that emotional connection, if the clients we see interviewed in this film are representative then it would seem to be the rule rather than the exception that female Johns (Janes?) somehow trick themselves into thinking there’s a lot more going on than a simple monetary transaction. Because in interview after interview, they talk about being in love, and wanting to get married to their prostitute, etc., etc.
In fact, as one of the prostitutes explains in an interview, the strategy is to delay the sex as long as possible, because it’s easier to keep up an illusion of an emotional connection if you’re just meeting at the club to drink and talk and party with like-minded folks, but once you have sex, that often breaks the spell and the client loses interest and stops coming around. So it’s best to be a “sort of” boyfriend who will socialize with you (if you spend a lot of money on him), but plays hard to get when it comes to sex.
An additional surprise is that a large number of these naïve women who think they and the prostitutes are falling in love with each other are themselves sex workers—prostitutes, strippers, etc. I believe one of the interviewees said 70%-80% in fact.
So the female prostitutes make a lot of money to have sex that they’re totally alienated from, and then they come to these clubs and are willing to pay whatever it takes to get (the illusion of) the kind of emotional connection—with or without the sex—that is lacking in their job. Indeed, it’s similar to why so many sex workers are drug addicts (and there is a similar chicken and egg question as well). They feel guilty and emotionally unsatisfied working as prostitutes, so they try to bury those feelings by getting drunk with pseudo-boyfriends who will treat them special and be romantic with them and make them feel good about themselves again, which costs a lot of money, which necessitates a high income like is available to sex workers, which makes them feel bad about themselves and in need of romance and connection, which keeps them coming to the clubs, etc., etc.
As noted, I’m not up on current Japanese standards of female beauty, but I did get a chuckle out of what I infer are current Japanese standards of male beauty. The prostitutes all have a girliness I would have guessed is more what gay males are looking for than what women are looking for. I would put them somewhere in between “metrosexual” and the lead character in The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveiros.
I thought the film did a good job of getting both the clients and the prostitutes to open up, especially the prostitutes. What we learn from the prostitutes is that their clients’ illusions really are illusions. Once in a while one gives an indication of feeling something for a client, or having guilt pangs about deceiving people into paying so much money for something fake, but mostly they just treat it as a job and amorally try to extract the maximum amount of money they can from the clients. To fend off any possible criticism of their deception, they fall back on the rationalization that they’re just selling dreams, and the people they’re selling them to know—or certainly should know—that that’s all it is, so they’re delivering just what they’re supposed to.
Of course it’s all quite sad in a way, seeing people throw money away in a futile quest for genuine human connection, and seeing other people exploit such vulnerabilities.
I don’t know that I can be totally condemnatory toward the women though, any more than I can toward men who go to prostitutes. In my own life I’ve typically been more of a perfectionist about relationships—if I can’t have the kind of meaningful, real connection I crave, I usually just go without—which is why I myself choose not to buy prostitutes. To me it’s just not close enough to the kind of sex I want to have.
But I could easily see going the other way. Sure, it’s far from ideal to be with someone who is only willing to have sex with you because you paid them, or to be with someone who only finds you attractive when they’re drunk, or to be with someone who really doesn’t treat you all that well a lot of the time, and so on. But many would say it beats the hell out of being alone, that an imperfect connection with someone who is less than what you want is better than no connection at all. I don’t know that they’re so wrong.
And that’s the choice people make who go to prostitutes. It doesn’t meet all the needs an ideally healthy romantic or sexual relationship could, but for people who realize the ideal likely isn’t available, I can see why they go for it.
Judging from this film, if there’s a gender difference, men accept the limitations of prostitution and focus on the needs it’s capable of meeting, whereas women talk themselves into being blind to those limitations and think that the guys they’re spending all their money on are reciprocating their feelings and that there’s a realistic hope they’ll get married and live happily ever after.
The Great Happiness Space: Tale of an Osaka Love Thief is an interesting little journey into a surprising and unfamiliar world.