Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Great Happiness Space & other Japanese Adventures

If you have not seen it already, I highly recommend watching the documentary about Japanese host boys called The Great Happiness Space - it's available streaming on Netflix. This film caused an important shift in my outlook, fundamentally altering how I view companion work and female/male relations. After years of sessioning as a professional dominant at The Gates, I had started to develop the all-too-common, cynical attitude towards men and the work, as well as a mindless acceptance of my own complicity in games of deception which traded false intimacy for ego strokes, gifts and money. I had begun to lump all men into the category of liars, perpetrators, and insensitive, selfish assholes. Conversely, I had begun to see myself and the other women as slighted victims of men's transgressions.

Yet this documentary helped me to see that that this dynamic is not one dictated or limited by gender. When men are the providers and women the clients - as is the case in this documentary - the same complaints surface but with the sexes flipped. In the film, veteran host boys speak in jaded tones about how their female clients are selfish and manipulative. They complain about rude things said to their face and say that the women don't feel as obligated to be polite because they are paying. One host boy said they were all liars, and that he no longer saw them as attractive women but only as money in the bank. It was amazingly eye-opening for me to hear these Japanese male companions saying the same sort of bitter complaints that I have heard come out of the mouths of female sex workers in the States. All of a sudden, I realized that the misery we had all been party to wasn't a case of biology as destiny, but really was a construct of our time and place. And that the touchy dynamics of pay-for-play is a dance of the human condition, not a battle between women as providers and men as clients.

I had an opportunity to see the host boys working the corners in Kubukicho, Tokyo last spring. Kubukicho is called a red light district but it's not like the dank and dirty places in the west, filled with shame-ridden folks and junkies with nobody making eye contact. No, Kubukicho aka "The Sleepless Town," is jammed full of hip young people, arcades, restaurants and bars, as well as the companion- and erotic-oriented venues. Even in the ordinary bars, you may pay a table fee in addition to a drink minimum, in exchange for which you are conversed with by one of the employees, male or female.

Paid company seems to be an accepted part of Japanese culture, whether erotic in connotation or not. In the crazed mega-technology district called Akihabara, we had our maid cafe experience. Here, sweet girl geeks in modest dresses with aprons and frilly hats served us on their knees. As kinky as that sounds, it was really quite innocent. Others in the cafe included a group of young people, two older women, and one lone young foreign man. We did actually find a BDSM dungeon during our foray through the city, not too far from Harajuku. We noticed a woman in full kimono escorting a man in a business suit out to a waiting car. After some time, we entered the discrete little office building where she had retreated to, and guessed that she was now behind a door that read, "Sakura," which means cherry blossoms. The building also held a graveyard-themed restaurant. We were about to leave when we noticed a beautifully wrought sign, in the style of samurai art, which depicted a ball-gagged man under the foot of a dominatrix. We rung the doorbell and a man with many facial piercings, long hair and a goatee answered. A woman in a corset in the background appeared to be getting herself out of the remnants of shibari suspension. Another corsetted woman flitted across the doorway. We were intrigued and excited. Unfortunately, our Japanese was virtually nil, as was the proprietor's English, so in the name of safety and common-sense, we called it a night, scenes from Tokyo Decadence flashing through our head.

I had already seen The Great Happiness Space, so I wasn't as perplexed as my friend when I saw the cadres of attractive young men in stylish dress clothes with big, highlighted hair flirting with Japanese women passers-by, though I was still delighted and surprised to actually see the boys in action. We passed by medium-size billboards with rows of their headshots, each one like an anime come to life. There is no corollary to this phenomenon in the west, and my friend, who hadn't seen the film, insisted that their customers must be men. Then we passed by the entrance of a club. Two giggly young women made their way down an ornate spiral staircase. At the top of the stairs, two hosts boys, looking like impeccable rockers in their designer duds, gave them the royal wave.

The full title of the documentary is The Great Happiness Space: Tale of an Osaka Love Thief, but I don't really agree with the latter part of the phrase, especially because I think it skews the host boy phenomenon to fit it into a more traditional view of female-male relations, with women as passive weaklings and men as the ruthless aggressors. The film itself does not back up this view, but rather shows men and women both engaging in a range of behaviors from combative to supportive, and from affirming to unethical. If a woman familiar with the provider point of view had been behind this film, I don't think it would have the same title, nor do I think it would have been quite so negative a take on the host boy's role. Certainly, the relationship between clients and professional companions can be tainted by exploitation. Yet to tar the entire enterprise as innately without merit seems too simplistic. Similarly, while I loved the twisted scenarios which lit up the erotic classic Tokyo Decadence (the scene with the dominatrix was a pivotal early influence for me), in order to fully enjoy it, I end up having to force myself to ignore the film makers mixed messages (portrayals of seemingly liberated women engaged in kinky, tawdry sex on the one hand, portrayals of the same women as heroin addicts and lost, needy loners on the other), messages which I think reflect a need to reaffirm the traditional female-male dynamic.