When first asked to watch a film about a Japanese love hotel I will admit that a lot of conclusions were jumped to. The idea of a hotel where you check-in without seeing the receptionist’s face and hire a room by the hour conjured up all manner of sordid imagery in my head. My assumption was that this sort of hotel would be a hotbed (pun intended) for illicit affairs and all manner of kinky goings on. What this documentary by Philip Cox and Hikaru Toda demonstrates is that while these hotels aren’t totally innocent establishments the activities within are varied and often incredibly touching.
Certain aspects of Japanese culture is revealed through the events at the Angel Love Hotel in Osaka Japan. In an overcrowded country where space and privacy is at a premium the love hotel offers a welcome escape from everyday life. An escape away from judgement where people can truly be themselves and where secrets can be shared.
For such a secret and intimate escape the film-makers have gained a surprising level of access to not only the inner working of the hotel and its staff but to the customers as well. In a completely uncensored fashion the film takes us inside the bedrooms with their occupants and allows us to witness first-hand what takes place inside. At first this feels intrusive and an invasion of the privacy they are so desperately seeking but before long I found myself drawn in and captivated by the intimate moments within.
These intimate moments do include what you might have first imagined. One man is splashing out on his first dominatrix experience and finally finding the sexual gratification he was looking for. Meanwhile a single woman is using the hotel to conduct an affair with a married man. These carry with them a certain amount of fascination but what really intrigues are the more tender moments happening elsewhere. An elderly pair of former lovers meet weekly to take tea, waltz, and reminisce, an old man thinks back on his mistreatment of women and writes a love letter to his neighbour, and a gay couple pop out from the law firm they both work for to find a space to be alone together. With these stories the film stops feeling just sexually intimate and moves on to offer the audience emotional intimacy. When someone enters the love hotel the audience steps inside their head as they let their defenses fall down.
One couple in particular won me over. They have been married for some time and seemingly are regular visitors to the hotel. Inside their room we see them as playful and obviously still in love. It is only when the cameras follow them to their lives outside and to their home does the contrast between their relationship in the real world and in love hotel world become clear. While in the hotel they talk openly and play with each other back home everything feels much colder and less open. The power of escape offered by the hotel is laid bare and its importance to certain Japanese citizens is clear. As the hotel’s manager says himself, “it’s not just for sex. You can do that at home.”
Love Hotel is a documentary that lets its subjects speak for themselves and offers no commentary of judgement. It truly surprised me and challenged by preconceptions of what this type of hotel was used for and what it has to offer Japanese culture. Love Hotel is incredibly sweet, intimate, and unfiltered. I only wish it had been longer.
DocHouse host the UK premiere of Love Hotel at the ICA this Wednesday 17th September complete with a Q&A with directors Phil Cox and Hikaru Toda. For more information and to buy tickets visit the DocHouse website.