Directors Philip Cox and Hikaru Toda document the staff and patrons the Angel Love Hotel, an establishment in Osaka, Japan that caters to those in need of an anonymous safe haven for private relationships.
MELBOURNE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: We all know that sex sells. And when it comes to film festival ticket sales, anything that combines sex and Japan is a lay down misère. Unfortunately, documentaries that do get programmed rarely offer anything of any depth. So it goes with Love Hotel, a sweet, if devoid of insight, doco thrown together by an independent company and with pre-sales input from the BBC, Arte and our beloved ABC.
The film opens with some shunga (sexually explicit Edo-era illustrations) and some onscreen titles that explain why the room-for-short-term rent phenomenon came into being. 1) Public affection in Japan was rare, and 2) that it was also difficult at home. These opening titles for Love Hotel fail to mention why this is so. Small houses and paper walls had a lot to do with the latter, and let’s not forget that public affection in Western countries is a pretty recent phenomenon too. Nevertheless, these explanations are still partially true.
With by-the-book, doco-making, Love Hotel shows a series of patrons enjoying the love hotel in their individual ways. The clients who let their hair down are Mr. and Mrs. Sakamoto, a couple of nurses who want to revitalise their marriage, a pensioner who wants to reminisce about his youth, a dominatrix and her rubber fetish client, two gay lawyers and a few others, all of whom offer matter of fact appraisals of the societal value of love hotels with the depth of a Daily Telegraph vox pop. The film offers a bit of fun by showing the managerial staff that usually remain invisible to love hotel clientele as well as the cleaning staff and the standards they must maintain.
What also remains invisible and would spoil the film’s sweet tone is any trace of the yakuza. True, Japanese culture is way ahead of the Western idea that sex is dirty. Rather in Japan, sex is an enjoyment and if you’re on the receiving end of a cash payment – it’s just a job. However, if you swallow the idea that organised crime doesn’t have a role to play in the licensing of love hotels then you’re living in La La land.
After plodding along for about 50 minutes, the film gains some momentum when the government legislation about love hotels starts to be rigorously enforced. But the film never asks, nor do any of the interviewees explain, why the laws are being introduced. No dancing after midnight and no mirrors on the ceiling are laws that sound like typical Japanese wackiness, but the reason for their introduction is part of a swathe of laws (Organised Crime Exclusionary Ordinances) introduced in 2011 that makes it illegal to deal with the yakuza at all.
The film plays heavily on its sense of nostalgia about a passing era, but given that there are – by the film’s admission – 37,000 love hotels in Japan visited by over 2 million Japanese daily, the phenomenon is a long way from extinction. And while “concept” rooms – like the African big game hunting-themed animal room or the sitting gods Egyptian room – might become a thing of the past, Japanese people will still need a place to discreetly have sex (illicit or otherwise) since the average Japanese apartment is only just larger than their cars. So don’t panic – or fall for the film’s phony sentimentalism – Japan’s love hotels aren’t vanishing just yet and neither will similar lightweight Japan and sex documentaries disappear from the film festival circuit.