hotel love: inside japan’s secret fantasy rooms
2.5 million people a day visit a Love Hotel in Japan. Love Hotel is the first documentary to take us behind the scenes of one of Japan’s 30,000 fantasy rent-a-rooms.
Film still from Love Hotel
The term "love hotel" started with a neon swivelling sign in Osaka, in the Kansai region of Japan. According to Vitamin Miura, who runs the Love Hotel Total Research Office in Tokyo, the "Hotel Love" in Osaka advertised its rent-a-room services with a revolving sign that could either read "Hotel Love" or Love Hotel", depending on where you were standing. The term gained popularity after the Osaka Expo two years later and in 1973, the famous and ostentatious Meguro Emperor Hotel in Tokyo opened its doors. There are many reasons for the Love Hotel's existence. On a practical level, Japanese houses are traditionally very small, built with thin walls and often housing several generations under one roof. After World War II, an unprecedented economic boom exacerbated already cramped urban living conditions. There was a strong social need to escape into private fantasy rooms, sometimes just to get a little privacy.
Rooms are equipped with karaoke machines, pachinko machines, disco balls, Nintendo games and lots and lots of sex toys.
In a gentle and impressionistic manner, Love Hotel shows us the details and features of daily life at the Angelo Love Hotel. The coterie of staff prove to be populated mainly by rather eccentric-looking pensioners in starched uniform. Love hotels are one of few places where pensioners can still find work in Japan. Room choices come in the form of an electronic menu at the reception desk. An air-chute, connecting the room to the reception, makes transporting money, condoms or extra snacks, easy and private. The Angelo Love Hotel is located in Osaka, which Hikaru says "is like no other city in Japan. People are open and up for adventure. I don't think we would have been able to make this film in any other place." Privacy is an important part of Japanese culture and this interrogation of intimacy could have proved disruptive. "But Osaka mentality is completely different. I instinctively knew that Osaka was the city we would find our characters - who would let us explore the intimate side of Japan and humanise the mysterious Love Hotel industry. This film is a homage to the people of Osaka in a way...."
The interiors of the Angelo Love Hotel are visually very arresting. Soft red and plums offset a bizarre large-scale Dita Von Teese velvet wall mural. Other rooms reveal 60s furnishings and retro wallpapers, dramatic lighting and purple fringed pillow chairs. Some rooms are sports-themed, or shot through with neon light. "The 'train room' was a personal favourite," notes Phil, "and took me a while to get my head around. It was an exact replica of a Japanese train carriage with extra mirrors and handles designed for different positions. I burst out laughing when I saw this!" There's also a space ship room, "complete with mini proper sit-in space ship…and the hospital ward room, the animal room - even one with a mini golf putting hole in it!" Rooms are equipped with karaoke machines, pachinko machines, disco balls, Nintendo games and lots and lots of sex toys.
An army of cleaners pile in the next day to clean the sheets and scrape dubious stains from the furniture. Love Hotel rooms vary drastically, and there's a 'concept room' for everyone, Phil and Hikaru tell me. "There are designers who are famous for their 'cages', for example, and they work closely with hotels to achieve a unique look. The interiors change with time and many of the fantasy rooms or 'concept rooms' echo the period of the 60s and 70s when it was all about fulfilling male fantasies. Now things have changed and women are socially accepted to be more in charge of choosing the rooms they use with their partners, so Love Hotels are changing their décor to fit the trend."
Increasingly more popular with pensioners, several of whom appear in the documentary, Love Hotels are even changing to accommodate the third generation, fitting in hand rails and other help for the elderly. One, a pensioner who watches pornos on a loop and sleeps on his bed fully dressed is particularly touching. He ruminates on love and lost opportunities, and what happened the day he lost his virginity: "My heart was beating so fast. Taking off her kimono was indescribable."
So is the Love Hotel industry changing a lot, I ask. "The policies governing love hotels and other 'entertainment venues' have got much stricter in recent years," Hikaru tells me. "S&M rooms are banned in many areas, with detailed conditions they have to abide by put in place including sizes of mirrors they can have in the rooms. We found the draconian nature of these rules an example of small individual freedoms slowly being taken away and how politics can creep into the everyday realities of people without them realising it. Love Hotels are still places of escapism from a conformist society."
"It is a microcosm of Japanese society condensed into one building... life needs a window to escape through, for love is inexplicable and needs a dream space to blossom."
Phil and Hikaru wanted to avoid the Western perspective of freaky sex, and the Lost in Translation stereotype of Japanese leisure culture. Observes Hikaru: 'Looking in from outside, I think Japanese culture is full of contradictions- one of the most sexually liberated places yet speaking about it or acknowledging it is frowned upon. I think our tendency to distinguish private feelings and expressing it comes from the aesthetic of finding beauty in nuances and subtlety over descriptive clarity." Getting people to speak about why they go on camera was important. The directors socialised with their subjects a lot, went out dancing and eating with them, and gained their trust. In some cases, as with the dominatrix Rika, you just couldn't intervene. Phil observes, 'we absolutely could never speak or interfere with her S&M sessions, as it would break the tension between her and client. To watch a proper rope and S&M session unfold over hours, just a few feet from you is very very intense! We would have no idea what would happen next and what the dominatrix would do - and there were some extreme moments!"
The building, a labyrinth of rooms in which characters never meet, never interact with strangers but only with each other (and the camera), begins to reflect the anonymity of life in a bustling urban city. "It is a microcosm of Japanese society condensed into one building," the film-makers observe. So Love Hotel ends with a quote which brilliantly sums up the Love Hotel's function as a room to escape into and unleash your fantasies, both romantic and sexual: "Life needs a window to escape through, for love is inexplicable and needs a dream space to blossom…"
Love Hotel has its UK premiere at London's ICA on Wednesday 17th September.
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Text Sophia Satchell Baeza
Film still from Love Hotel