Backstage of life: Japan’s love hotels

Those hoping for an expository, talking-heads and graphs style documentary will not find what they’re looking for in Phil Cox and Hikaru Toda’s Love Hotel. Instead, the directors offer a far more sensitive look at what could, in the wrong hands, turn into a simplistic, sexploitation flick – another lazy, racist addition to the “look how weird Japan is” genre beloved of Western media.

Very little is offered in the way of background facts: the film jumps straight into a look at the staff and guests of one of Japan’s 37,000 ‘love hotels’, The Angelo in Osaka. What a love hotel actually is not set out for the viewer; we are left to learn gradually over the course of an hour and a half – not through the use of a voice-over, but through interviews and wordless, naturalistic footage.

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The protagonists are a diverse group – there is a real sense that the filmmakers are committed to actually exploring the lives of The Angelo’s customers, and not just cherry picking the most salacious stories. Mr and Mrs Sakamoto are in their forties, looking to rekindle the kind of passion they felt in their twenties, much like Masa and Rumi, waltzing on a miniature disco dance floor – two pensioners giggling like teenagers. Kazu and Fumi are lawyers at the same firm – the homophobia they face as a couple means that a love hotel is one of the few places they can drop their guard and celebrate their relationship. Mr Yamada, an elderly pensioner, comes on his own to write romantic letters and reflect on his regrets – he admits that he wasn’t good enough to the women in his life, as lesbian porn plays in the background.

A desire for explicit sex doesn’t remove the equally deep desire for connection and profound love

It’s this juxtaposition that lies at the heart of Love Hotel – the reconciliation of the overtly, crudely sexual and the thoughtfully tender. The beauty of the film is that it makes the viewer aware that no reconciliation is necessary – one does not negate the other. Mrs Sakamoto poses, laughing, in her underwear while vintage pornography is projected across her body – the romanticism of the scene is underscored by the richness of the colour palette, the lyricism of the music. She and her husband watch footage of another couple making love, talk about having a baby, reassure and comfort each other. A desire for explicit sex doesn’t remove the equally deep desire for connection and profound love.

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Nowhere is this theme more powerfully played than in the scenes with Taku, a postal worker, and Rika, a professional dominatrix and costume designer. Eschewing any hint of sensationalism, they talk about Taku’s need to be bound, to be dominated, and then allow a tenderly shot scene of rope play speak for itself. Rika tells Taku to look at himself in the mirror, to understand that what he wants isn’t normal: “It’s okay – nobody’s normal.” She rubs his shoulders – he folds himself into her arms. His beatific smile, just visible through a rubber mask, is something that will stay with me for a long time.

Footage of the running of the hotel is equally human, though in a more comedic vein. No matter the themed rooms and vending machine full of sex toys, there are still arguments about which way the toilet roll should be folded.

The directors have done something rare in truly capturing the private moments between couples that can mean so much

Of course, Love Hotel does have its faults. An over-reliance on slowly panned shots away from locked doors becomes annoying, as does the preponderance of corridor and stairwell footage. As someone whose knowledge of Japanese culture is so often filtered through a Western lens, I don’t know what to make of the frequent city views and images of nightlife. Is this what Osaka is actually like, or are these just standard filler shots meant to suggest urban alienation and dislocation?

LOVE HOTEL manager.jpgStill, those are small flaws in a quiet film that punches well above its weight. The overwhelming impression I was left with was of joy and the wonder in small intimacies. The directors have done something rare in truly capturing the private moments between couples that can mean so much: the knock of one knee against another, a shared joke that doesn’t need explaining, a moment of absolute understanding and acceptance between two people who were strangers to each other only an hour before.

The manager of The Angelo opens the film by offering one explanation for the popularity of love hotels: “Japanese people need to escape reality.” By the end, he has changed his mind, as, hopefully, have the viewers. Love Hotel explores, without fuss, without analysis, a place where people can talk honestly about who they are and what they need, face their desires head on and share them. This is a “backstage of life…a place where one can witness the truth”. Exactly.

Pictures are stills from Love Hotel, courtesy of DocHouse.

UK premiere of Love Hotel, followed by Q&A with directors, will take place on Wednesday 17 September, at London ICA.

CN Lester is a musician, writer and LGBT, feminist activist