An elderly couple dances under flashing lights in an ersatz disco club. A self-described “family man” is suspended from the ceiling in a bondage suit and gimp mask, a rope tied around his penis. A white-haired man stares blankly at an endless loop of pornography, bemoaning his lost libido and recounting his first sexual experience in a love hotel (“My heart was beating so fast. Taking off her kimono was indescribable.”)
They are all guests at The Angel, one of 30,000 “love hotels” in Japan, pay-by-the-hour lodgings offering a discreet haven for trysts, affairs, and visits with prostitutes and dominatrixes. And it’s the subject of Love Hotel, a new documentary from filmmakers Hikaru Toda and Phil Cox exploring Japan’s conservative, sexually repressed culture and pervy counterculture. We are told that a staggering 2.8 million Japanese people “visit love hotels daily seeking escape from small living spaces and long work hours” and, predictably, that “users come from all walks of life, wanting a private space where the rules don’t apply.”
Toda and Cox introduce us to Mr. and Mrs. Sakomoto, a middle-aged couple who come to The Angel to rekindle the flame in their marriage—and to talk about the need to rekindle the flame in their marriage. They role-play in a room designed to look like a subway car (she is a passenger, he is a conductor) and cuddle innocuously in the hotel bed. When Mrs. Sakamoto calls reception with a request for “sexy underwear,” a member of The Angel’s staff sends it to her room via pneumatic tube.
And then there is Rika, a 26-year-old dominatrix who ties up her clients with rope and degrades them (“You feel good because I took your freedom away”), only to play nice when the game is over. “They all have a common sense of loneliness and a dissatisfaction with their daily lives,” she tells us, as if that weren’t already apparent. “At least when men are with me, I accept them as they are.”
The requisite gay couple, Kazu and Fumi, are thirtysomething civil rights lawyers working at the same firm, where they are obliged to keep their affair closeted. Apparently their co-workers have no suspicions about the camera crew following them to work, filming as they whisper to each other in the office kitchen. (The viewer can’t help but wonder what will become of their clandestine relationship once the documentary hits theaters in Japan.) For Kazu and Fumi, the love hotel is a welcome respite from a disapproving culture, though the couple is shown being rebuffed from a love hotel because, it is strongly implied, they are gay.
Overseeing this den of kinky secrets is hotel manager Ozawa, a caricature of the sleazy, middle-aged man in a seedy profession, but one whose devotion to his work is supposed to make him an empathetic character.
Indeed, this is more a film about relationships than of the sordid culture of Japan’s love hotels. But there are too many characters—all slightly underdeveloped—and storylines for the viewer to feel invested in any one of them. And the film’s construction feels slapdash and contrived: The camera is trained on these people in the throes of intimacy or discussing their sexual peccadilloes post-coitus, and the viewer is expected to believe these interactions are natural and unaffected. Instead, Love Hotel seems less a documentary than a high-brow reality television show. (Rika, the dominatrix, acts like an interviewer in the film, asking questions she likely wouldn’t ordinarily ask a longtime client; it’s the kind of interaction created by cameras in the room).
While many scenes feel constructed, much detail is left unexplained. We know the intricacies of Mr. and Mrs. Sakamoto’s limping sex life, but we don’t know why, in one shot, Mrs. Sakamoto rubs her hands and says she’s in terrible pain. Tears flood her eyes, but we never learn the cause of her physical suffering.
Nor does the film explain the supposed political war on love hotels—one of the dramatic threads of the story—and provides no discussions with those allegedly behind the crackdown. The targeting of the industry is explained in vague radio and television clips (which appear to have been added to the film after the fact), creating a sense that conservative forces will soon destroy the love hotel by legislative mandate.
But earlier this year there were reports that, despite a struggling economy, business was “boom[ing] at Japan’s ‘love hotels.’” Those Japanese wanting to be discretely suspended from the ceiling in a gimp mask needn’t worry. The war on love, fetish, and infidelity, it seems, has fizzled.