My Interview with Cinematographer/Director Jake Clennell on His Documentary: “The Great Happiness Space”

Films come and go in our lives, sometimes with little more than a shrug of the shoulders. Others make lasting impressions and guide us to think differently about what movies can be. It’s hard to imagine seeing Jake Clennell’s “The Great Happiness Space: Tale of an Osaka Love Thief” without being strongly effected. It is a powerful documentary about how human nature sometimes gets kinked by commerce.

Before the film, I wasn’t aware of Japanese “Host Clubs” where young women paid handsome young men big money to spend time with them; drinking, talking, flirting. But in the buzzing neon alleys of Osaka, Japan a young cinematographer found just such a club — Osaka’s Café Rakkyo – and filmed its employees, their female clients and the strangely ironic human drama that played out over the course of many expensive, alcohol-filled nights.

Before going any further you should immediately download/rent the film from Netflix. That’s not a commercial. I don’t get a dime. Just trust me, you will want to see it. The film received stellar reviews and garnered a number of nominations and accolades… as you’ll learn. But a Japanese language documentary with subtitles is probably not the first thing you look for when you’re walking through the aisle of your average video store. It’s a pity, because it’s difficult to find a more touching, human, engrossing and real film – a film where each step of the way you’re shown that no matter how beautifully strange things appear on the glossy surface, with human emotions involved….things can always get stranger.

Simply reviewing the film or recommending it didn’t seem enough to be enough. But what more could I do? As it turned out, with a little luck, I could interview the man who made the film and ask him about the perspective of seeing life through the other side of the camera lens.

(Just as a “translation note” between a spoken conversation and a written transcript; Jake Clennell was very personable, down to earth, unpretentious and easygoing. He was never less than candid and completely forthcoming and sincere. If that does not come across in any of the interview, fault me, the “translator”, not the interview subject.)

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Jake Clenell: Did you see the film?

Baz: Yeah, that was actually leading to one of my questions. The first time I saw it, a couple of websites were linking to a Google video of it and I didn’t know if that was actually legal. I guess I thought it was legitimate at the time, and I did see it there. Did you know anything about that?

Jake Clennell: Yeah. We had to get all that stuff taken down. It was kind of a pain in the ass for us. You know, it was quite flattering. The film got….like….a million hits. It got a huge amount of views. It was kind of a surprise. I think some tags got put up and people thought it was male gigolos.

Baz: (laughing) Yeah.

Jake Clennell: The film got a lot of hits, but that wasn’t us. We ended up having to employ someone to keep it off the web because you can download it from Netflix.

Baz: Oh, Ok. I didn’t know that.

Jake Clennell: Yeah, they own the rights. That’s, in theory, how we all keep going. You know what I mean?

Baz: Right, well I’m glad it’s available so people can see it.

Jake Clennell: Have you actually managed to see it on a big screen? I guess you’ve only seen it in a sort of poorly downloaded version.

Baz: I’ve seen it on my computer screen….basically…unfortunately.

Jake Clennell: That’s a shame. Its better when you can really see what’s going on, but I guess as long as you can read the subtitles you can get the overall vibe. Did you enjoy the film, Baz?

Baz: Oh yeah. I think it’s a beautiful film. One of the reasons it first caught my eye…. I stayed in Osaka for about a time… and I didn’t get to know the city terribly well, but I was kind of curious about things that were going on…. It had the name “Osaka” in the title, and I was curious about it. It turned out to be a great film in a lot of ways.

Jake Clennell: When were you staying in Osaka?

Baz: Let’s see….I think it was before 2000…. Somewhere in the 90’s… late 90’s, I think. I had a good time and everything, and saw some of the city. I didn’t speak any of the language or anything. But it was definitely a beautiful city, and there were certain areas….especially sort of arcade areas where you would go, like where the Café was, where you would see all this neon. It was really great at night to hang out.

Jake Clennell: Yeah, it’s amazing to me. I loved it too. It’s definitely one of my favorite places.

Baz: Where did the name of the film and the subtitle come from?

Jake Clennell: “The Great Happiness Space” I think is really Japenglish, and I was really, really fascinated by things that were Japenglish. I think they sort of catch people’s attention. Because the syntax of the sentence is a little bit wrong people give it a double take. The fact that we gave it the secondary title “Tale of an Osaka Love Thief” is because I wanted people to understand that it was kind of a romantic movie. That it wasn’t a hard-boiled, dry documentary.

Baz: Yeah, it almost sounds like some of the English you would see on potato chip bags over there – things like that. Where it wasn’t quite right.

Jake Clennell: Yeah. I love that. I love when languages collide. But it’s more than just “collide” in Japan. They really make it their own. There are so many English words that are translated into Japanese – that just exist in the Japanese vernacular.

Baz: Ok, let me get this rather obvious question out of the way first. Do you still get asked about the café and people that were in the film?

Jake Clennell: Yeah, I mean its a few years ago now. People often say “What happened to the guys?” It’s a pretty transient world. In fact, it’s an incredibly transient world. The one thing about the Rakkyo…space… everybody’s really young in there. And host clubs aren’t really….particularly a host club like that…or a situation like that….there’s a pretty transient moment in somebody’s teenage life…. Young life. And I did go back a year later and I was in communication with him [note: Issei, the main Host of the club, and the film’s main “character”] for a while. And then I’m pretty busy. I was in India and Alaska for most of last year making another film. Eventually I lost track of the details of people’s lives. The thing that really struck me was that people had moved on. People had moved on quite quickly. People that were working there weren’t working there six months later. As it says in the film, people don’t really last that long, and if you do last a long time – that might be a year. That might be a really long time to last in the environment. I think the film really is not only a look at a goldfish bowl of a culture, I think it really is a look at a window in time.

Baz: Is that a danger of being a documentary film maker? If you find interesting subjects, you’re supposed to keep up with them for the rest of their lives?

Jake Clennell: No. I certainly don’t. Because I don’t see myself…. I’m not really recording history. I shoot films for other people like that, but I certainly don’t direct films that aren’t meant to be anything except for what I see. I’m not making the news. I’m trying to say I don’t feel any responsibility whatsoever to…..continue on. I think sometimes when people make documentaries about somebody who was falsely accused of a crime they might have a section of the DVD like “what happened ten years later…three years later” But “The Great Happiness Space really is…. (trails off in thought)

Baz: It’s kind of a moment in time.

Jake Clennell: It’s a moment in time, and really you don’t know who’s lying and who’s telling the truth in this film. After really having gone through it and having watched it…it was a very well received film, critically. It got great reviews in the Radio Times. It got great reviews in the London Times. It was shown at the Museum of Modern Art. It got great reviews in Variety….and countless other publications….and the Guardian UK…. You know, those are the four biggest places where it could have possibly been well reviewed. And it won the Edinburgh Film Festival. These quite significant places where it was recognized by people that really know about film….probably know about film better than I do. (Laughs) I think that it was because the film is….received by the viewer on whatever wavelength they want to receive it. I mean, if you’re a woman and you feel that the women are abused, you can see it like that. If you’re a guy and think it’s a fun job you can see it like that. If you’re a guy and you see the tragedy of selling your affections as a man, you can receive it like that. If you’re just interested in cultural phenomenon, you can see it like that. If you think it’s just a fashion film, you can see it like that. But I think you can also see the film almost as an interesting look at the nature of truth. What people say and what they do, and how they put themselves forward — In a sense that I think the film its self is a little bit like a character in the club…in the sense that the filmmaker….or me…or the group of people that made the film reveal information about the film kind of slowly in a way that kind of draws you in.

Baz: Yes.

Jake Clennell: I think that’s what the characters in the film do. They sort of draw you in, and then the plot thickens. I think film does that. In that sense it’s not particularly honest. It’s manipulative. It’s a manipulative film, with characters that are manipulative. You never really know who’s telling the truth. I think since there’s no voiceover in the film, and I certainly didn’t construct any information. The film does withhold information strategically.

Baz: Right. It sort of builds a narrative, I guess you’d say.

Jake Clennell: Yeah.

Baz: Going back to when you first discovered all of this, you were filming a Japanese High School Basketball Team documentary.

Jake Clennell: Baseball. High school Baseball. [note: 2006’s Kokoyakyu: High School Baseball]

Baz: What it Baseball? I’m sorry. What was the story of discovering the Café, and what made you think this would be interesting enough to make a film about?

Jake Clennell: I was doing the film for PBS, working with Kenneth Eng, who’s a good friend of mine. And there was a bridge in Minami that’s subsequently been closed down. I would just sit and see these people that look like peacocks. They were just so amazing. And of course, girls are pretty dressed up. Boys are pretty dressed up. And they seemed to be having some sort of interaction which was outside of regular culture. It was outside of… you know, people weren’t shopping and they weren’t….they weren’t engaging with everybody else. They felt a little bit like royalty in a weird way. I don’t know if “royalty” is quite the right word, but definitely a bit of a glamorous kind of self-contained group. I wondered what it was. You know, usually as a westerner you don’t have a presence on the street in some small way. One felt pretty invisible to this group of people. I always find that kind of intriguing.

Baz: Do you actually speak any Japanese at all?

Jake Clennell: A little bit. Not much. I wouldn’t describe myself as a fluent speaker, but I speak a little bit. But basically I rely on translators.

Baz: Did that make the film more difficult to make? Were you able to get across what you wanted to ask people, for example?

Jake Clennell: Yeah, you can get it across. It’s kind of weird. You have to simplify what you say. And I think it forced me to ask more fundamental questions. I think I’m….there’s a tendency to over-complicate things. The think the language barrier forced me to simplify things. It helped me.

Baz: Did it take a lot to convince everyone to allow the cameras in and talk to you?

Jake Clennell: Yeah. It took a long time. I had taken a lot of time “tuning in” Japan. It takes some time to get acculturated….as a westerner…as an American or an English person. To work out just quite how….much respect you need to show in all of Japanese culture….can be a surprise. And how you need to demonstrate that respect, no matter who you’re dealing with. Which is something that hopefully one does in one’s dealings no matter where you are in the world? But you have to be quite overt about it in Japan, and it definitely took a long time to….find the right place, and find the place where that relationship sparked.

Baz: Do you think that being an outsider to the community and to the country might have actually made it easier in some ways for people to open up to you or to the cameras?

Jake Clennell: Oh yeah. For sure. I think so. And I think Japanese people are interested in…. they’re very introspective people. They’re well educated and introspective people. I think the thing about the group of people in the film is that they’re quite articulate about their situation. They’re more educated than most, or more educated than that group of people would be in that situation possibly somewhere else in the world. Because Japanese culture has such a high standard of education.

Baz: I was thinking about one scene where Iesse [the main host] mentions that he thinks one of the girls being interviewed is saying something basically for the camera….to get back to him. Whether or not that’s true, did you sometimes think that people were seeing the film or you as a means to an end?

Jake Clennell: Well, I think that’s what the film’s about. I think there’s a number of levels to the film, and I think that on some level as a viewer….there are so many motivations. It becomes possible as a viewer to begin to understand the complex nature of the event. Because you yourself beginning to question everything that everyone is saying.

Baz: (Laughs) Yeah. I understand that. I definitely got that.

Jake Clennell: And that’s the film, right? I don’t want to tell people…..I think people experience different films in different ways. I think at the end of the day that’s it. To what extent people are saying things for ulterior motives….one can only speculate. I was hanging out with these people for two years. It was like a little window. I think it’s charm….life in it’s uncertainty.

Baz: You focus mainly on the people who work at the club or people who are clients. What kind of reactions did you see….kind of in your peripheral vision…to the host clubs outside of that environment?

Jake Clennell: Host clubs are popular in Japan. To the western audience this is kind of a new thing. But actually the Japanese audiences…they have comics and TV shows….TV series and movies and host clubs. It’s not new.

Baz: They’ve got a whole different thing going on.

Jake Clennell: They just don’t care. It’s like a strip club in America. Everybody’s not going bananas because somebody is a stripper. It’s just part of Japanese culture.

Baz: Right.

Jake Clennell: It’s definitely a small part, but its definitely a publicized part. I wouldn’t describe it as….

Baz: Not completely out of the mainstream.

Jake Clennell: It’s certainly something that exists as a feature element in life there.

Baz: Is there a mindset that you try to…go into when you’re doing a documentary as far as what “objectivity” means to you, and how you might maintain that?

Jake Clennell: No…I mean…I’ve been a camera man for a long time. Mostly what I do is….um….

Baz: You try to be the camera, maybe?

Jake Clennell: Yeah, I try to shoot what’s there, and kind of follow your nose….follow what you’re interested in. I don’t particularly….I don’t believe in objectivity in an absolute sense. I think no matter where you are, whether you’re with a camera or just there as a human being you effect what’s going on. Do you know what I mean? You see somebody with a surveillance camera…it’s on the High Street somewhere and at some point somebody doesn’t know it’s there after a while….a couple of years, and breaks into a shop, and it ends up on a “Greatest Video Clips” TV show – I think you could say that was quite an objective view if you turn the commentary down on the TV. But I think everything else is born from the interaction.

Baz: Ok, fair enough. If a company came to you and said “We’d like to do a special edition for Blue Ray” or something like that, would you be interested in doing a commentary track for the film? Or would you rather…leave it alone.

Jake Clennell: It’s funny; I really don’t think that the film would benefit form a commentary. I’m really…I think those people are really interesting and I’m really boring. (laughs) I think it’s often the case with documentaries. You’re running around finding something interesting. I think that there are great documentary film makers, like a Warner Herzog, who really has a voice that brings an extra dimension to a film. But you need to get lucky. You need for things to happen. I think that’s pretty much the critical thing. I think that by explaining “The Great Happiness Space” – explaining that happened – It takes away from the mystery of it a little bit.

Baz: Right. It’s sort of an experience.

Jake Clennell: Yeah, it really is. It’s a simple film, but I think that films – particularly films like “The Great Happiness Space” which has an element of theatricality to it – it’s really open to interpretation.

Baz: It’s sort of deceptively simple. It has different layers to it. I’ve watched it a few times, and it…you can definitely see different things if you watch it more than once.

Jake Clennell: Yeah, absolutely, and I still do. But most of my observations about it were born of having to live with it for a while. Having seen it at a lot of festivals and see people react to it. I eventually came to this conclusion that…when I first made it and first talked about it, I was concerned that people were getting it…that people were following the ball. But then after a while I just realized people follow whatever ball they want to follow. To what extent am I really the critical factor in it? You know? Not really….

Baz: They can make what of it they will…

Jake Clennell: People make of it what they will. I think if I put a commentary on that I think, number one that it would be boring, and, number two, I kind of like it. I like it being out there and people are like… “Wow!” “What is that?” and “What’s true and what’s not true?” and “What happened.” And I think that what you said is absolutely true, Baz. I think it’s a deceptively simple film

Baz: When you’re actually shooting the film…before you’re editing anything…just as you’re standing behind the camera…do you see in your mind the beginning, middle and end of the narrative? Or does that come a good bit later?

Jake Clennell: It came a bit later. Plus, the language barrier. They don’t know the nuance of everything, and translation’s difficult. It’s difficult for the person translating. It’s hard to know what bits of a long conversation to communicate quickly in the field. I don’t understand all the Japanese, particularly in a noisy club. And there are some radio mics on them and you don’t know what’s being said. So, the fact that there even was a narrative really only came about after having everything translated months later. In the field it was just gathering and hoping for the best.

Baz: There are certainly some sad elements in the film, and sad themes. Is that something that can stay with you at times? Or is that something you have to just deal with in that business?

Jake Clennell: (silence for a few seconds) There have been situations in my career when I’ve felt very…disturbed by things, but….like famine. Do you know what I mean?

Baz: Yes.

Jake Clennell: You know, it’s disturbing, or war is disturbing. That’s not to say that…. I don’t do an awful lot of stuff like that. I do entertainment stuff, but I have done bits like that. And those things are definitely…disturbing. I think “The Great Happiness Space”…I like to think of it as more romantic in the sense that the pain…. (thinking for a moment) I don’t know. I don’t want to downplay the fact that I think there are some people that really suffered. I think people do really suffer over love. I think they really do. Do I find it personal disturbing? No, not really, because it’s actually universal. I think everyone’s been in that amount of pain. I just think there is sort of a spotlight on it in that film. But I don’t walk away from the film…I don’t walk away from the experience of shooting it emotionally scarred by everyone’s pain, No. Not particularly. But I do sometimes walk away from a reviewing affair a bit like I’ve been affected by a romantic song. It stirs up that emotion that everyone experiences. Everybody suffers over love. Everybody suffers over a broken heart or unrequited affection or tragic misunderstanding when you’re a young person….of how to deal with these situations. I don’t think it’s trivial. I do think it’s universal.

Baz: Sure. Well the last question I had for you….the film was nominated for a number of awards, and I think you said it did win one film festival prize for Best Documentary. What was it like to get the acknowledgement….not just that but the reviews as well….for all the hard work that you put into it?

Jake Clennell: It was great! It was really great! It was lovely to win some stuff. It won the Edinburgh film festival which is the oldest film festival in the world….and that was a massive honor. Sean Connery gave us the award.

Baz: Wow….

Jake Clennell: It was just great. It got nominated by the IDA [International Documentary Association] for outstanding achievement, and the IDA is a really significant award. It got nominated for Best British Documentary by the British Independent Film Awards. It got nominated for a Gotham award….and it was just brilliant. I can’t tell you how happy it made me feel, because I’d worked as a director mostly in television. This was the first feature length thing I’d done, and to have it go “over the fence”….just to have people say “We like it.” It was great. As a foreign language film….subtitled, independent foreign language documentary… the chances of it getting “over the fence” were quite slim, you know? The chances of it actually getting out into the world and having people taking the time to bridge all of the gaps necessary to get sucked into that world….it’s not that common. If you look at what documentaries actually make it onto TV, mostly they’re not obscure subtitled kinds of things. I was just so, so honored and happy and grateful that it had been received so well. It really….really…inspired me to keep going. (laughs) Like…maybe this is something I can do.

Baz: Well listen, I appreciate you taking the time to talk to me, and I’ll definitely try to let as many people as I can know about the film so that they can see it, because I think it’s really worth seeing.

Jake Clennell: Well thanks, Baz. I’m glad you liked it, and it was a pleasure talking to you.