Kabukichô Love Hotel (Sayonara kabukichô)
Japan (2014) Dir. Ryuichi Hiroki
For the uninitiated love hotels are common across Asia and parts of South America but they are more associated with Japan, standing as a unique aspect of the country’s rich and varied culture. They provide a place for amorous couples to amuse themselves intimately, be it innocently or to experiment, while also accommodating adult film shoots and locations for working ladies and their clients.
Former Pink film (softcore exploitation films which were big in the 70’s in Japan) director Ryuichi Hiroki continues his journey into mainstream cinema by taking an indirect trip back to his roots with this exploration into lies and the human struggle for survival in a post Tsunami Japan, the connecting factor being a love hotel in the Kabukichô district of Tokyo.
The film opens with Toru Takahashi (Shota Sometani) who lives with his musician girlfriend, Saya Iijima (Atsuko Maeda). While she struggles to get a record deal, Toru works at a five star hotel – or so Saya thinks; Toru was actually fired some time ago and now works at the titular love hotel, afraid to tell Saya this.
But Toru is not alone with being untruthful to a loved one. First there is Korean delivery girl He-yah (Lee Eun-Woo) soon to return to Korea to open a shop with her mother. She lives with her chef boyfriend Chong-su (Son Il-kwon), who is unaware He-yah is actually a prostitute named Iilia. Meanwhile Toru interrupts an adult film shoot to discover the star is his sister Miyu (Asuka Hinoi), not the first shock in store for him on this day!
Sex may appear to be a prominent theme of this film but it is more about lies and the lying liars who tell them, or more accurately the reasons why they find themselves forced to lie. For some, such as Masaya (Shugo Oshinari) who works as scout for the yakuza, deception is part of the job description as demonstrated by his picking up of Hinako (Miwako Azuma), a teenage runaway whom he gets to “try out” first.
Elsewhere the middle-aged cleaner at the hotel Satomi (Kaho Minami), hides a secret from her co-workers which is about to be exposed when a couple of adulterer police officers (Aoba Kawai and Tomu Miyazaki) arrive at the hotel for a private investigation of each other’s bodies.
One could make a claim that this is a ribald modern Japanese take on the classic Grand Hotel, such is the contrivance of all of this disparate threads playing out in the same venue and roughly the same time with a slight overlap. The major difference is of course that no-one wants to be alone. But this gives Hiroki a plausible central base for his stories to play out rather than zipping from location to location, which it does but mostly to introduce the characters.
It also shows that love hotels aren’t exactly the salacious havens for the debauched and deviant which some may view them as (although the two cops hide their faces behind the anti-cold face masks), showing us that the patrons are largely regular people. This also applies to the employees, with Toru being the totem in his need to earn a wage to support him and Saya.
Clearly there is a lingering stigma attached to love hotels if Toru hasn’t told Saya of his change of employment, unless he was keeping quiet to save Saya’s face if/when she becomes famous. Conversely during Toru and sister Miyu’s rather underwhelming showdown, Toru says that no-one should have a job they can’t tell their parents about, to which Miyu asks if Toru has told their father about his working at a love hotel. Touché to Miyu.
Hiroki’s 2011 film River was made during the devastating tsunami of that year and he rewrote the script to include a reference to this. Here he uses it again as a justification for Miyu’s entry into porn, saying the money helped lift the burden from her parents’ worries, specifically their father who suffered a breakdown.
As manipulative as that may sound the general idea of coming back from something by simply getting on with plays a part in the mindset of the cast as they each see their actions as a means to an end. It may not be everyone’s first choice but the results at least are gainful employment and food on the table.
Drawing the most emotional investment of the film is the story of He-ya, the hotel’s busiest patron with three appearances that day, the first a regular client, the second a gruff bully looking to take his woes out on someone and finally one that proves to be a surprise. He-ya oddly feels no compunction or discomfort with her job, presumably seeing it as business only yet when she visits Chong-su at work she gets jealous at his playful flirting with female customers.
It’s never made clear if these two being Korean was intentional or if Hiroki was trying something but different but it is ironic that not only do both actors give the strongest performances but their story arc is he deepest and most emotionally resonant. It covers everything from sex to drama to pathos to sweet tenderness, a deft and sensitively handled scenario with the potential to be a feature length story in its own right.
Despite top billing former popstrel Atsuko Maeda is underused here but still impresses with her few scenes, her end credits singing being a highlight. Japan’s busiest actor Shota Sometani is in the familiar role of the put upon everyman while veteran Kaho Minami provides some unintentional comic relief.
Kabukichô Love Hotel’s 135 minute run time flies by, the portmanteau format being a perfect fit for the tales told here. Hiroki keeps the direction simple and the cameras distant where necessary to create an engrossing character study and humanisation of the daily struggles of the ordinary folk of urban Japan.