Philip Cox and Hikaru Toda's "Love Hotel" is one of the dozens of documentaries making their festival debuts at the ongoing Hot Docs Canadian International Film Festival -- and certainly one of the most tantalizing. Detailing the experiences of the people that both frequent and work at the Angelo Love Hotel in Osaka, Japan, the film thoughtfully explores an imperative establishment that's fighting to stay afloat against the Japanese "entertainment police." Which is in large part due to how intimate the filmmakers portray their subjects, who range from a married couple trying to bring some spice to their relationship to two gay lawyers who due to the homophobic constraints of Japanese society can only be together at these hotels. And not just physically (though the film does feature explicit sex), but through their emotional proclamations of the hotel's meaning to them.
"Privacy is very big in Japan," Toda explained. "'What's private should be kept
private' -- that's kind of the value that we have. But
we chose Osaka for that reason, because the people of Osaka are very
open, and we instinctively knew that we should go somewhere where people
are out to share their stories of intimacy and to come and become a
collaborator with us to tell these stories of what these spaces mean to
them. It was a very collaborative process. We filmed over two and a
half years with them and we kept going back.""
Toda said that they built a relationship of trust that was very much a process of discovery for them, but also for their subjects, who were able to find out more about each other than they knew.
"We approached it very much in that space to do a film about love," added Cox. "And I think they were a bit unsure at the beginning, but we were very honest, and I think one of the reasons was that because we were in that space that we asked to film them, that they were more open."
Cox explained the genesis of the film came from a few years ago, when the London-based filmmaker and his production team started throwing around ideas if films to do in Japan. They came up with the
phenomenon of love hotels for various reasons.
"There's the number of them and the sheer scale of them," Cox explained, "and there's the fact that nobody had ever done a film on love hotels, and nobody had ever had access to them. And what they represented in Japanese society was an extraordinary phenomenon, something that doesn't exist in other countries. So we set off really without any funding, Hikaru and I, to Osaka, and started knocking on doors of love hotels. Eventually we found one that let us in, and it led us into an extraordinary world that we didn't expect."
Even though there's an abundance of love hotels in Japan, the lack of discourse has clearly brought forth a lot of curiosity.
"It's something that you don't really talk about, so people always want to find out what other people are up to," she said. "So one of the characters told us, 'Yeah, I want to get involved because I'm also curious about what other people get up to.'
One of the primary purposes of the film is to break the boundary between the public and private. With the space of the love hotel, the characters reveal everything private within them -- which they clearly wouldn't do amidst their public lives. Toda explained that's largely the situation in Japan because of the social pressure attached to who you are supposed to be.
"It's a very collective society in that
sense," she said. "It's not up to an individual and their individual desires. So I think the love hotel, for example, could represent their individuals
desires of what they want to be... the playful individual in that
protective environment. Whereas outside, there's more what you
have to be. You have to be a good citizen, you have to be a good
husband, a wife. And I think it's universal. I think we all
play a role in a certain way, and I just think that in Japan, it's a
little bit more emphasized."
"I think what 'Love Hotel' is is something that's relevant to every society, globally," added Cox. "It's a space where people can have fantasy and intimacy and play, in a developed, industrialized society. It's something that should be important to every human being, but somehow it's connected to something that's slightly kinky or wrong, but really all human beings need that space, and in Japan it's a very important space. It was quite liberating to see people who've found importance in that, which is what love hotels represent. It's something we don't have here, in Britain, Canada, America or France, they don't exist. But the role of fantasy and play in everyone's lives, to have a space where you can let it all out, is what 'Love Hotel' is about."
"Love Hotel" screens again Saturday, May 3 at Hot Docs. And you can also look for it at a festival near you.