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From the Globe and Mail, Monday, April 2, 2000

tokyo girls

The way Vancouver filmmaker Penelope Buitenhuis sees it, Western women who work in Japan’s lucrative hostess trade are oppotunists who fill a human void in an alienated society, she tells ALEXANDRA GILL

VANCOUVER
When Penelope Buitenhuis went to Tokyo in 1999 to make a documentary about Western women who work in the hostess club trade, Lucie Blackman probably hadn’t even arrived in the crowded neon-lit city, where men pay hundreds of dollars to sit with pretty young women who smile, stroke their egos and pour them $50 shots of Scotch.

The story of the 22-year-old British airline attendant, however, begins very much the same way as many of the women Buitenhuis met for Tokyo Girls. Like Hilary, a fresh faced blonde from Vancouver who is featured in the film, Balckman went to Japan with the intention of working as a highly paid bar companion for three months to pay off her student debts. Unlike Hilary, Balckman never went home.

In February, seven months after Blackman had phoned a friend to say she was going on a seaside drive with a client and then vanished, her body was found in eight concrete-encased pieces buried in a cave on a beach near Tokyo. A 48-year-old property tycoon, Jyoji Obara, was arrested in October after an unidentified Canadian woman came forward, alleging she had been drugged and raped by him three years earlier. Obara had already been charged with raping five foreign and Japanese women who worked at hostess clubs in the Ropongi bar district. Since the grisly discovery of Blackman’s body, several other cases of missing hostesses, including a young woman from Calgary who disappeared three years ago, have surfaced. And the sordid side of this once-innocuous trade that attracts thousands of recruits from all over the world has undergone much public scrutiny.

When the National Film Board documentary airs tonight on CBC Newsworld’s The Passionate Eye, a postscript will be added to highlight the tragedy. But it was included at the CBC’s insistence. Because although Buitenhuis is sympathetic to Blackman’s family, and her film tells the story of one woman who got involved with a gangster and eventually had to flee Japan fearing for her life, she still thinks hostessing is a fairly safe profession.

“When something terrible happens, everyone goes ‘bad, bad, bad, bad, bad’” says Buitenhuis, a 40-year-old filmmaker who lives in Vancouver. “But terrible things can happen to women here when they’re walking down the street. I don’t agree with the fear-mongering going on in the media.”

Buitenhuis says she’s not trying to gloss over the dangerous elements of the trade or deny that the girls who get lured in by prospect of making upward of $3, 000 a month should be careful. But she says “weird things” can happen in any occupation. “They’ve proven that all those different women were raped by the same guy. So it is horrible. But that doesn’t make the entire occupation a danger zone. I’ve known tonnes of women from around the world who have done that job and nothing has happened to them.”

Rather than portraying the women in her film as vulnerable victims, Buitenhuis presents them as opportunists blatantly taking advantage of an old and often misunderstood Eastern tradition that has evolved into a modern-day business transaction. Hostesses, the way Buitenhuis sees them, are economy-class geishas that fill a human void in an alienated consumer society. And what compelled her most about the subject was the psychological impact of selling something more subtle and complicated than sex -- the charade of affection and friendship.

“ My intention with Tokyo Girls, “ she explains, “ was to get people to think: Would they do something like that if presented with the opportunity? I want the audience to really question their values. Would they do it for the money?”

Buitenhuis was inspired to make the film 10 years ago, while travelling through Asia for a film about male prostitution. Everywhere she went, she says, she met women who worked as hostesses.

“ What was most interesting for me was that sex costs less than a hostess. What is going on in this world where company is worth more than sex? This alienated society that is desperate for conversation and contact and romance?”

The concept made more sense to Buitenhuis after she visited a host club, where men paid to sit and chat with wealthy women. “I have to say I really enjoyed it. It felt pretty nice to be taken care of, looked after, told that you’re beautiful and make jokes and have fun. It’s pampering. And when do we get pampered by another human being who’s not a masseuse or something?”

The experience, however, exposed yet another disturbing side to this romanticized notion of intimacy. “A lot of the women treat the men like shit. There are a lot of lonely, disempowerd wealthy wives in Japan. And it’s a power trip for them to go to a host club.”

Power is also an issue for some of the hostesses interviewed in the film. Nancy, a 24-year-old Montrealer, went to Japan to study contemporary dance but soon found herself working the bars. “I always have to insist that I’m not a prostitute,” she says. “It’s the mentality of old Japanese men with lots of money who think anything’s allowed.”

“There are a lot of women who can’t play a game, “ Buitenhuis says. “They can’t flirt with a guy and tell him he’s handsome. I think there’s a lot of women who can’t do it and they shouldn’t. They would feel compromised. You have to understand that you’re going to have to be a sweet little girl and it might be humiliating and you might hate it. But that’s the deal.”

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