Hiraku Kawakamiin River by Kheaven Lewandowski
Hiraku Kawakamiin River by Kheaven Lewandowski

VIDEO: Life Ain’t Easy For Japanese Rent Boys In “River”

Japan’s famous host clubs provide the champagne-soaked setting for River, a gorgeous and largely improvised film by Canadian music video director Kheaven Lewandowski (which you can watch here). Set in Tokyo, the short film examines follows the life of an aging host whose wild evenings of boozing, romance and karaoke begin catching up with him. He’s got an ulcer, for one thing, and his closeness to one woman in particular might prove hazardous to his health.

Japanese hosts are like PG-rated gigolos, straight male sex workers who cater exclusively to a female clientele. With big hair and big personalities, these guys offer brief romantic encounters that may, but also may not, involve sexual contact. (Anything that happens in bed is strictly off the clock.) Clients of the host clubs are largely female sex workers, single women with odd schedules who don’t have the time — or in some cases, the social standing — to find long-term boyfriends. Shots are poured and pricy champagne is chugged straight from the bottle. River’s narrator claims that he used to drink ten bottles of champagne each night. No wonder he has that ulcer.

Hiraku Kawakami plays the progagonist of the film which was initially created as a six-minute music video for The Belle Game’s track “River,” off the 2013 album Ritual Tradition Habit. With lush cinematography courtesy of Benjamin Loeb, the six-minute music video won the audience prize at the 2014 Prism Awards for Canadian music video, and MuchMusic – the Canadian equivalent of MTV – even put it on their list of the 100 Greatest Music Videos.

Lewandowski spoke with Pitchfork about the original music video, saying that there were challenges. He doesn’t say outright what they were, though.

The idea with the ‘River’ video from the very beginning, was that it had to reflect the tone and themes of the song while visually being able to stand up with it and serve as a companion piece. I thought it would be interesting to explore the ideas of the song through a character and subculture we’d never seen before. One thing led to the next, and a Japanese rent-boy odyssey story was conceived, and felt right.

Making it turned out to be a whole different story, which took about five months with many ups and downs. We just never lost sight of the fact that it was an opportunity to tell a unique story with an amazing soundtrack, that explores a world that most people have never even heard of; and at it’s core, is something everyone can relate to. It was definitely a video worth fighting to make.

Back in 2010, student Tomahiro Osaki wrote for CNN Travel about visiting a host club and speaking with her host, whose name was Hotaru. While the film’s protagonist suggests that the job’s biggest pitfall is developing feelings for clients – sure it is – the real-life host has a less romantic answer to that question. The biggest challenge: “a large consumption of alcohol.” The men are also required to stay very physically fit, and sleep is a luxury they don’t always receive. And while the lifestyle is pretty decadent, hosts aren’t required to have sex with the women who hire them for the hour. And if they do, that’s something that happens beyond hosts’ professional lives.

River can be seen on Nowness.