A lot less raunchy than its title might suggest, but not without a few racy interludes, “Kabukicho Love Hotel” is a mostly successful multi-strand drama set over the course of a single night in Tokyo’s red-light district. Although the outcomes of some stories are a little too sentimental, the film is populated by interesting characters involved in intriguing situations. Directed with a knowing eye by former “pink film” kingpin Ryuichi Hiroki, this lengthy but never dull riff on the “Grand Hotel” formula is ideal fest fare and ought to click with domestic auds when it’s released locally in January 2015.
Signaling that the movie will have more to do with heavy hearts than with heaving hips, Hiroki opens with a bittersweet portrait of singer-songwriter Saya (Atsuko Maeda, formerly of pop-idol outfit AKB48) and her mop-top boyfriend, Toru (Shota Sometani). It’s clear the two are in love but the sex has stopped, and Saya is on the verge of being signed to a major label. Worse still, Toru hasn’t told Saya he’s lost his prized job at a fancy hotel and now manages Atlas Hotel, a far less reputable establishment that caters to couples conducting dalliances of the discreet variety.
As Toru goes about tasks that provide audiences with an absorbing view of how such a place operates, the screenplay introduces disparate characters who will eventually take rooms at the Atlas. Occupying the greatest amount of screen time and mining the richest emotional territory is Mena (Lee Eun-woo), a Korean call girl on her last day of work before heading home to open a business with her mother. While Mena lies about the true nature of her occupation to her chef boyfriend, Chong-su (Son Il-kwon, aka Roy from boy band 5tion), her appointments with clients who know her as “Ilia” go well beyond hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold cliches, and are by turns amusing, insightful and disturbing.
Less effective overall, but still affording some very sweet and affecting moments, is the tale of Satomi (Kaho Minami), the hotel’s middle-aged cleaning lady. Satomi has been hiding her partner, Yasuo (Yutaka Matsushige), from sight for 15 years following their involvement in a crime, and the statute of limitations for their arrest is about to expire. The same can be said for drama surrounding Hinako (Miwako Azuma), a teenage runaway picked by Masaya (Shugo Oshinari), a procurer of prostitutes for a gangster. Despite a compelling start, this thread takes a turn into mawkish sentimentality and never really recovers.
The film’s weakest element involves Miyu (Asuka Hinoi), a porn actress making a movie in one of the hotel suites. The girl also turns out to be Toru’s sister, but apart from this amazing coincidence, their confrontation over life choices and family responsibility fails to register as anything of substance. In the grand scheme of things the storyline is small potatoes, but considering Hiroki’s vast experience in the flesh-film realm, it’s a letdown.
But the strong points of “Kabukicho Love Hotel” far outweigh its less successful components. The pace is peppy throughout, and there’s a welcome shot of comedy-thriller added to the mix, courtesy of a married cop (Aoba Kawai) whose off-duty meeting with a work colleague (Tom Miyazaki) gets complicated when she spots a criminal suspect. In the final analysis, most audiences are likely to feel well rewarded by the time daylight breaks and life-changing events in the characters’ lives have played out.
Performances are fine down the line. Top-billed popster-thesp Maeda (“The Seventh Code”) continues to impress, and Sometani gives a nice low-key turn as the manager whose career and personal life have hit a bump. Lee is terrific as the willing-to-please call girl, and Tomorowo Taguchi has a lovely cameo as the kind-hearted manager of the Juicy Fruits escort agency Mena/Illia works for.
Choice of locale is spot-on; the hotel is neither a sleazy dump nor a top-bracket establishment, making it easy to believe all these characters could be found within its garishly decorated walls. Atsuhiro Nabeshima’s steady handheld camerawork and Junichi Kikuchi’s adroit editing are strong contributors to a first-class technical package.