the Globe and Mail, Monday,
April 2, 2000
way Vancouver filmmaker Penelope Buitenhuis sees it, Western
women who work in Japans lucrative hostess trade are oppotunists
who fill a human void in an alienated society, she tells ALEXANDRA
When Penelope Buitenhuis went to Tokyo in 1999 to make a documentary
about Western women who work in the hostess club trade, Lucie Blackman
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
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 Blackmans 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 Newsworlds The
Passionate Eye, a postscript will be added to highlight the tragedy. But
it was included at the CBCs insistence. Because although Buitenhuis is
sympathetic to Blackmans 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 theyre walking down the street.
I dont agree with the fear-mongering going on in the media.
Buitenhuis says shes 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. Theyve proven that all those different
women were raped by the same guy. So it is horrible. But that doesnt
make the entire occupation a danger zone. Ive 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 youre
beautiful and make jokes and have fun. Its pampering. And when do we
get pampered by another human being whos 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 its 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 Im
not a prostitute, she says. Its the mentality of old Japanese
men with lots of money who think anythings allowed.
There are a lot of women who cant play a game, Buitenhuis
says. They cant flirt with a guy and tell him hes handsome.
I think theres a lot of women who cant do it and they shouldnt.
They would feel compromised. You have to understand that youre going to
have to be a sweet little girl and it might be humiliating and you might hate
it. But thats the deal.