​the secret life of japan’s sleepless town

Director Kheaven Lewandowski talks host clubs, massage parlours and champagne calls of Kabukichō, Tokyo’s red light district.

Jun 19 2015, 3:40pm

With its Love Hotels and celibacy syndrome, Japan is a place of sexual contradictions, each just more spurred on by the other. Its conventional views on love and sex have birthed a whole underground world of people who thrive on the openness they can have with their sexuality in a place with no prying eyes. Another one of these microcosms is the world of hosts and hostesses.

Vancouver-based director Kheaven Lewandowski's short film River - initially made as a music video for The Belle Game - tells the fictional tale of a host called Keiji, in Tokyo's red light district, Kabukichō. The film looks at the reality of many hosts in the nicknamed "Sleepless Town", who get most of their business from women who work in the same industry. Seeking to fill a lonely hole left by not being able to find someone who accepts their job, these women find sanctuary in the hour or so they pay to spend with their favourite host. Lewandowski tells us his experiences of the rent boys, hostesses and club rituals he encountered during filming…

River from The Herd on Vimeo.

What drew you to make a film about Japan's underground sex scene?
I've been fascinated with Japanese subcultures for a long time now, so when I pitched music video ideas to The Belle Game (the band who also did the score), I proposed a story about a Tokyo rent-boy (also known as Hosts). I thought it was interesting to hear a reverse of what's going on in North America—where girls were paying men to keep them company.

What sort of research did you do before making it?
I started by reading anything I could find online about the subject. Through endless digging, I found a very insightful AMA Reddit thread with responses from someone who claimed to be a rent-boy. But the most valuable insights I found were in a documentary film called The Great Happiness Space. It follows a group of rent-boys in Osaka, and shows the ins and outs of the industry. I even named a character in River ("Issei") after the main subject of that film, as a little homage.

What parts of Tokyo's sex industry did you actually see for yourself?
Having a local producer (Darryl Wharton-Rigby) with great connections was a huge asset, and that helped us see things at ground level for ourselves in Kabukichō, a sort of Red Light District in Tokyo, which is controlled by the Yakuza. Kabukichō is not like Amsterdam and is a lot more discreet. There are no women sitting on display in red neon-drenched glass window fronts. Rather, there are a combination of Host clubs, as they are called, and massage parlours. The men work at the Host clubs, and women work at the massage parlours. Surprisingly, most of the clientele that comes into the Host clubs are actually female prostitutes from other establishments. Working on the video, we went into several Host clubs, met their owners and met tons of actual Hosts.

How realistic is River?
Our approach from the very beginning was to try to make River as authentic as possible. Luckily, our production coordinator found us a great club to film in and the owner arranged for her own Hosts to come in on the day of filming to be our extras. The Hosts all showed up looking like the real thing—because they were!

The short film features a couple of scenes with a "Champagne Call," which is a ritual at Host clubs. During a Champagne Call, every Host in the club comes over to the client's table to serenade the client with a song/chant while a signature song blares over the speaker system. Next, the client's Host chugs a bottle of champagne, which is how it's meant to be drunk. We were lucky enough to have real Hosts as our extras to actually perform the song. We filmed the ritual with our cinematographer (Benjamin Loeb) in the middle of the action.

Another aspect of the Tokyo sex scene we wanted to capture as realistically as possible was the solicitation of girls outside of the clubs. Solicitation is actually illegal, so our hosts weren't able to act out that aspect of Kabukichō life. However, I noticed a group of rent-boys from a different club that were trying to talk to girls passing by. I asked our lead actor, Hiraku Ando, to walk up to them in character, and to mimic what they were doing. It made for some really authentic footage that was a neat blend of documentary and fiction. Soon after, we were told by a suited Yakuza member to stop filming and leave. We got off easy that day, according to our local crew.

The way we treated the sex side of the film was also in line with what we learned from the Hosts we spoke with, and with the research I did prior to landing in Tokyo. Although the clients at these Host clubs don't pay for sex, they are essentially paying to be in relationships with Hosts. These girls spend a lot of their income hiring their favourite Hosts. Sometimes the Hosts have sex with ongoing clients, as a means of fulfilling their clients' needs, and to keep them coming back. Successful Hosts can earn tens of thousands of dollars a month, and tend to have rock star status in certain neighbourhoods. They are so well known that they even have their faces on billboards and advertisements.

Did you discover the love hotels?
The love hotels are often used by hosts, but that was not an area that we delved into. We chose to focus on the host clubs for our story.

There have been a few reports on Japan's "celibacy syndrome" - where the young people have lost interest in sex and intimacy. How did your experiences differ from that?
Actually, my experiences didn't really differ from that. We learned that "celibacy syndrome" is a major problem in Japan, with one of the lowest birthrates in the world. Based on my discussion with locals, this shift appears to be tied to women's reluctance to succumb to the traditional Japanese family dynamic. Customarily, women are expected to stay home and raise children after marriage. However, women have become a huge part of the workforce, and many women don't want to abandon their flourishing careers to start a family. There seems to be a clash of expectations on both sides of the gender equation.

How does the Japan's sex scene fit in with the country's overtly conservative traditions?
As an outsider, it seems that Japan's sex scene is a direct byproduct of their conservative collectivist traditions. Japanese culture places an emphasis on family honour, saving face, and politeness that make sexual freedom and expression very taboo. I think that out of all this repression are born these covert and artificial means of intimacy. There is an obsession with commodifying things in Japan, and relationships are no different.

Which other videos or films have caught your eye recently?
The Polish film Ida was probably my favourite movie of last year. It actually won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film. Another movie I saw recently that still haunts me is Ex-Machina. But the crown jewel of recent movies for me is the new Mad Max: Fury Road. It's the best action film of the last decade.

What are you working on now?
Right now I'm finishing up my next short film, which is about the origins of the infamous 90's tabloid star, Bat Boy. It's my first piece with a real orchestral score, so I'm very excited to release that one. I'm also in the early stages of writing a feature film, which I hope to have written by Christmas. Apart from that, I'll be collaborating with The Belle Game to shoot another music video this fall for their upcoming album.