Never trust anyone who says that documentaries are easy. These people have likely never made a documentary, or at least not a good one. It might seem like a luxury, not having to worry about writing a script, casting talented actors, or even coming up with set decoration and costumes. Just walk around with a camera! The truth, of course, is that the freedom of working without a script is far overshadowed by the challenge of crafting a cohesive, compelling narrative out of the raw material of reality.
Life isn’t always as easy or as interesting as the movies, even when it comes to the world of Japan’s remarkable love hotels, which are exactly what they sound like: pay-by-the hour spaces where the people of Japan go to release their inhibitions in a culture where, residents often note, sexual expression and sexual freedom are hardly encouraged. Love Hotel, directed by Philip Cox and Hikaru Toda, is a colorful examination of the love hotel culture, notable in its premise and ambition but a bit shaky in its execution.
As I mentioned, what is definitively exciting about Love Hotel is its ambition. At first it might seem like an intimate, narrowly focused documentary about a single love hotel and its patrons in a single city. And it is, except when you pause to think about the implications, this becomes a pretty impressive feat. A major portion of the film consists of footage shot from inside the rooms, while the subjects are engaged in any number of intimate activities.
How did the filmmakers get these participants involved? In a country where everyone that you interview admits to being sexually repressed and inhibited, how do you find people who are willing to not only allow strangers into their private sexual spaces, but also to have sex on camera? How does the notion of being filmed affect their behaviors? The no-doubt fascinating production of Love Hotel leaves me with dozens of questions, and I’m both impressed and also frustrated because I feel that these are questions the film itself should have anticipated and answered at some point.
Love Hotel has so many unique, personal stories to tell, and I think the film would have benefitted tremendously from taking a step back and providing a more direct, “meta” approach. Other than some half-hearted title cards, viewers are given no context for what they are watching, and this is the type of documentary where context is half the fun. I wish the filmmakers had become characters in the story; after all, they spent almost two years gaining the trust of their subjects and sharing private experiences with them. The one-sided interviews where patrons seem to be speaking into a void, or worse, an unmanned camera, feel disingenuous, especially when you think about the exciting possibilities that would have arisen from placing the filmmakers themselves on camera in this environment. Imagine a long-married couple having a serious conversation in bed late at night, while a film crew sits in the corner watching and adjusting the mics.
The film dabbles in a number of the Big Questions about life, sex, and propriety, even briefly addressing the Japanese government’s ever-more-restrictive “entertainment laws,” which by the end of the film have required The Angelo to shut its doors for drastic renovations that will remove such items as ceiling mirrors and rotating platforms. Love Hotel never completely commits to an angle or focus, though, which in the end keeps it from being as memorable as it should be.
This is not to say that the film didn’t contain some remarkable scenes depicting the infinite variation of the human sexual experience. It definitely had those; I’m particularly fond of the kinksters of the film, a dominatrix and her married rubber-fetishist client, who share a bond akin to therapist and patient. It just seems as though Love Hotel is more an incredibly compelling collection of footage at this point than a fully-formed story.
Love Hotel will be available on VOD this week.
Kayleigh Hughes is an editor, freelance writer, and overthinker. In addition to contributing to Loser City, Kayleigh occasionally writes for xoJane. Talk to her about literally anything–she doesn’t have that many friends–on twitter or via email.