Saturday, December 26, 2009

A Quick Filmic Look Back Into the Last Decade

I was recently asked to list ten of my favorite Japanese films of this decade and here’s what I came up with off the top of my head and in no particular order:

Distance (Hirokazu Koreeda, 2001)
9 Souls (Toshiaki Toyoda, 2003)
Crying Out Love, In the Center of the World (Isao Yukisada, 2004)
Eureka (2000, Shinji Aoyama)
Tokyo Sonata (2008, Kiyoshi Kurosawa)
Battle Royale (2000, Kinji Fukasaku)
Vibrator (2003, Ryuichi Hiroki)
Hana and Alice (2004, Shunji Iwai)
Heart Beating in the Dark (2005, Shunichi Nagasaki)
Tokyo Godfathers (2003, Satoshi Kon)

It should be noted that there were several releases that really should have made this list (whether Kurosawa’s Bright Future deserved mention over Tokyo Sonata was a chore in itself) and certainly many more I have not even seen (early indicators suggest that Koreeda’s recent Air Doll might have supplanted Distance on my list, for example). The point of this list is that the 'noughts' have shaped up to be one of the most prolific decades in Japanese film since the fifties and there is plenty of talent to be excited about for the upcoming decade.

So what are your favorite films, Japanese or otherwise, of this decade?

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Review: The Great Happiness Space: Tale of an Osaka Love Thief (2006)

Director: Jake Clennell

The Great Happiness Space looks at the world surrounding Rakkyo, a "host pub" located in the neon playground of Osaka, and its 22-year old owner, Issei. As expected, the movie is rife with scenes of effete young playboys with teased Final Fantasy-like hair slinging BS lines to young girls eager to relieve their paychecks for some fun and companionship. Meanwhile in the background, the champagne flows, the cheap techno beats bounce, and the money trades hands like cards on Valentines Day. At one point, Issei, portrayed as the smoothest of the hosts, smugly states, “…they’re just happy to be with me. Even if we don’t have sex, it’s enough to heal them.”

Healing is an important theme to The Great Happiness Space (this title is probably meant to evoke the concept of “The Floating World”). Only a third into the documentary, several patrons are revealed to behostesses themselves, prostitutes, and soapland attendants, contrasting with my expectations that they would be bored, rich college students or office workers. With this reveal, the film casts the adult nighttime industry in a human light. These are people whose jobs involve the fulfillment of other's physical needs sometimes at the expense of their own emotional needs. Thus, these women turn to Rakkyo as an oasis of sorts to fulfill their emotional needs with the hosts' attentions and needs. In a sense, Clennell presents an interesting dilemma: that these two needs are never truly fulfilled since they boil down to business transactions and sessions and not necessarily relationships. Even Issei himself admits that "Work is work....once you get feelings involved, you lose" meanwhile his biggest customers admit to spending thousands in one night.

The “pleasure” industry in Japan, once controlled by the government, has developed along a single dichotomous, but not mutually exclusive, line: the water trade (mizu shobai) characterized by flirtatious social interaction and drinking. Its hardcore counterpart (fuzoku) meanwhile deals with the carnal pleasures associated with the "pay-to-lay" aspects of the industry. Since its privatization, the industry has fallen into less savory hands (though it is debatable that, for example, the yakuza are more or less savory than the government) and certain segments such as prostitution have been criminalized or forced to exist euphemistically (i.e. there are massage parlors and ‘massage’ parlors). It was not until Japan's eventual contact with western societies, sex simply was not something associated with sin and debasement but just as a facet of life like worship and shopping. Incidental encounters with the industry are, in fact, not all that uncommon. Chirashi leaflets are stuffed seemingly by the pound into residential mailboxes, handed out in packs of tissues near train stations, and arrive in electronic form in every device that can receive them whether via email or text message. Furthermore, it's not an uncommon scene to pass a soapland, love hotel, and/or cabaret on the way to your local temple or store.

With his directorial debut, Clennell manages to document a subsection of Japanese society that people know about well, but not understand: the 'pleasure' industry. I will admit when I first heard about this documentary, I sort of cringed. If there is one thing that I have grown to loathe, it’s the gross exaggeration of modern Japan as a society of perverted and/or oversexed freaks. Surely a documentary about Japanese host clubs (think of a hostess club but with the role reversal female clientele and male employees instead) would do little to dispel that notion. However, The Great Happiness Space, like other successful documentaries of its kind, manages to show us that its flawed subjects are not apart from but rather a microcosm of the greater society.