In an interview following the publication of his fifth novel, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, the great Czech author Milan Kundera was asked what sex means to him as a novelist. Anyone who has dipped into Kundera’s oeuvre will know scenes of coitus play a frequent and important role.
“I have a feeling,” he said, “that a scene of physical love generates an extremely sharp light which suddenly reveals the essence of characters and sums up their life situation… The erotic scene is the focus where all the themes of the story converge and where its deepest secrets are located.”
Kundera could have easily been talking about Love Hotel, a feature documentary showcased as part of BBC Four’s Storyville series earlier this year and made by award-winning independent filmmakers Native Voice Films. The documentary takes the Japanese institution of the love hotel as its subject, a place where couples hire fantasy-themed rooms by the hour.
Love Hotel is a study of this most revealing of human moments as it is played out in a culture famous for its sharp contrast between public and private life, or as the Japanese say, “honne” and “tatemae.” Honne corresponds to one’s true feelings or desires, while tatemae describes the self one shows to the world.
What makes Love Hotel so remarkable is its deeply intimate access to the honne of its subjects, whether they are pensioners, S&M clients, or a gay couple who must hide their love. “A love hotel really is the backstage of life. It’s a place where one can witness the truth,” Mr Ozawa, the manager of Angelo Love Hotel tells us.
Because we meet and get to know the documentary’s participants through acts of sex, we see the true essence of them in moments where, as Kundera observes, their life situation is “summed up”.
In making the film, the directors gained unprecedented access to the Osaka-based Angelo Love Hotel, one of 37,000 love hotels in Japan. Through this one establishment we see ordinary Japanese who feel their everyday lives lack something which this fantasy land provides.
On one level it is a story about the strains of living in a nation which has experienced economic stagnation since the early 1990s, creating a “lost generation” of temporary workers who can’t even afford to have families, as one cleaning lady at the hotel remarks.
Japanese society is well known for its punishing labour conditions and we gain an insight to this through the Angelo Love Hotel manager, Ozawa. Following new legislation to clamp down on the more adult aspects of love hotels, such as S&M rooms and mirrors on the ceilings, the industry is forced to adapt and lose customers in the process.
As is common in workplaces, and especially so in a rigidly hierarchical culture such as Japan, the pressure is passed down the chain. In an amusing scene – one of many in the documentary – we see Ozawa practice his baseball swing with an automatic pitching machine before informing us he imagines the ball is his boss’s head.
On another level it is the story of people seeking to escape the stress and simple boredom of their lives by hiring luxurious-looking bedrooms, many of which are ‘concept’ rooms decked out to look like a 1970s disco, a boxing ring or the inside of a train carriage.
Forty-one year-old Mr Sakamoto, an unemployed husband in a childless marriage, tells us he and his wife, a 43-year-old nurse, visit Angelo Love Hotel to keep their passion alive. As the couple watch an old porn film being projected onto a wall, Mr Sakamoto remarks: “They look so happy.”
Masa and Rumi, a retired couple aged 64 and 65, visit the Angelo Love Hotel to practice dancing. Naturally they choose the disco room, and before they move onto the dance floor they lie on the bed and admire the brightly coloured neon lights hanging from the ceiling.
Rika, a 26-year-old dominatrix, tells us all her clients share “a common sense of loneliness and dissatisfaction with their daily lives.” Her customer Taku, a 35-year-old postal worker, admits during his first visit with her that his life is “a bit shit”.
In many senses, Love Hotel has a close relationship with Kundera’s 1978 classic, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting.The novel’s title could almost be a sub-title for the film. In entering the adult theme park that is the Angelo Love Hotel, the documentary’s participants seek to forget their everyday lives. But at the same time, like Kundera’s characters, they fight against forgetting. They strive almost painfully to recapture times when living had more intensity.
Lying in their bed at home, Mr and Mrs Sakamoto stare at the ceiling. “Don’t you think we’ve lost the passion? The way we felt in our twenties?” Mrs Sakamoto asks her silent husband. “We used to have such great sex,” she says.
Reliving the past plays an important part in Kundera’s novel. In one scene Karel attempts to recapture a lost memory from his childhood while having a threesome with his wife and mistress. The act of remembering vanquishes his lethargy and leaves him feeling like a champion. You see a similar zest in the eyes of the Angelo Love Hotel’s customers.
As with Kundera’s work, Love Hotel is speckled with moments of raw humour.
Mr and Mrs Sakamoto engage in role a playing game where the unemployed husband acts as a stern train conductor and his wife as a passenger who happens to have lost her ticket. Their laughter comes not from the awkward script they act out, but from their acknowledgement of the game. It’s the same kind of laughter you see in the outtakes of movies.
Mr Yamada, a 71-year-old married man, laments his lost libido as he visits the hotel alone. A believer in secrets at any age, he writes a love letter to his beautiful neighbour. “I’m sure that she can’t be interested in an old fart like me, but her smile still makes me think she is,” Yamada says.
His secret love letter is reminiscent of the licentious Utsugi, the elderly main character from one of Junichiro Tanizaki’s last novels, Diary of a Mad Old Man. Like Mr Yamada, Utsugi craves the love a younger woman, in this case his daughter-in-law. Tanizaki, who is one of Japan’s most revered novelists, often used sex and erotic desire to comic effect. As did Japanese film director Juzo Itami, whose classic work Tampopo features a sex scene involving an assortment of food, including whipping cream, raw eggs and a live lobster.
But for some participants in the documentary, Love Hotel is about more than seeking to escape from the pressures of work or the mundaneness of life. It is about escaping oneself.
At the end of his interview, Kundera talks about the dangers of nihilism: “There is a certain imaginary dividing line beyond which things appear senseless and ridiculous. A person asks himself: Isn’t it nonsensical for me to get up in the morning? To go to work? To strive for anything? To belong to a nation just because I was born that way?”
“Man lives in close proximity to this boundary and can easily find himself on the other side. The boundary exists everywhere, in all areas of human life and even in the deepest most biological of all: sexuality,” he says.
“In Japan, everyone is trapped in themselves,” Rika tells the camera at one point. Her job is to help them escape. After her first session with Taku she admonishes him for his reticence: “Let yourself go more. Open mind.” Later we see Taku put on a gimp suit be strung up to the ceiling with rope. “You feel good because I took your freedom,” Rika tells him.
Speaking in the bathroom before a night of coitus, Mr Sakamoto tells us he wants to “go further” this time. He wants to, I imagine, cross a border in his mind.
There is a sense in Love Hotel that several of the participants are close to crossing Kundera’s imaginary boundary, beyond which life becomes senseless and absurd. Perhaps some have done it already. Rika seems to facilitate this, albeit in a safe environment and with an almost maternal affection. It is a wider reflection on the S&M movement, where sex becomes highly fetishized, almost to the point of the ridiculous.
But it is also a reflection of the perils many face in an advanced capitalist society, where the average person’s role is reduced to that of passive consumer or obedient worker. When jobs dry up and you are unemployed, like Mr Sakamoto, it’s difficult to define yourself at all.
With so few opportunities for agency, the act of sex becomes one aspect of a person’s life where they can act authentically. And for some, this means attempting to transgress oneself altogether. They escape their traps, but into what? What lies beyond oneself, except nothing?
In other hands this documentary might have offered us a freak show of bondage obsessed office clerks and role-playing married couples. But Native Lives do the opposite. They go beyond the seeming abnormality of what we see and explore the participants common humanity.
As Rika says to Taku after bringing him down from the ceiling: “Its ok, nobody’s normal.”
Love Hotel was directed by Phil Cox and Hikaru Toda. It was first shown on BBC Four on 16 February, 2015.