Love Hotel
A guest at the Angelo Love Hotel in Osaka. Photograph: Native Voice Films

It’s been estimated that not far off three million people drop in at one of Japan’s 37,000-odd ‘love hotels’ every day. These often strangely designed establishments are something of a subversive institution – a designated space for play, fantasy and exploration, where couples can escape the pressures of a rigid social structure.

With unprecedented access behind the scenes at the Angelo Love Hotel in Osaka, filmmakers Hikaru Toda and Phil Cox – of Native Voice Films in Hackney – have spent the last four years working on a documentary that sheds light on this offbeat strand of Japanese culture. The result is Love Hotel, a curious film streaked with beauty and truth.

In many ways – and not just because it’s Japan – it’s like reading Murakami: you’re drawn into a neon-lit sub-reality where the unconscious plays out like real life. But what’s fascinating, and at times easy to forget, is that this is real life. Within the four walls of each individual room is a different world, a slightly tweaked dimension (enhanced by the bizarrely themed décor) in which the narratives are generally rich and engrossing.

But just to be clear, the window that Cox and Toda offer is not about sex or voyeurism: it’s about people.

The characters followed are an intriguing and diverse bunch, with a 40-something married couple and two gay lawyers taking much of the focus. Perhaps most interesting, though, are a divorced couple who come together to share a dance once a week, or the 71-year-old widower who watches porn and writes reflective letters about not being able to write like – ironically – Murakami.

One particular sequence in which a businessman is kitted out in squeaking latex rubber and hung from the ceiling by a young dominatrix demonstrates the directors’ considerably refined artistry.

Just as fascinating, though, are the ins and outs of running the hotel, with a busy backroom staff pulling the strings to keep the ethereal illusion intact. It’s like theatre, or dramatic therapy of some sort.

Having spent hours and hours at a time in the rooms with their subjects, the co-directors have captured some moving moments of confession, desire and frustration. This is tempered by a heavy dollop of humour that, while undeniably entertaining, might occasionally distract from the stark sadness of a situation.

As the film progresses, a political arc emerges concerning the changing laws regarding love hotels, giving the piece the thread it needs to ride through to a successful conclusion. In all it’s a unique, thought provoking and deftly-executed feature, flecked with magic.

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