'Kabukicho Love Hotel' ('Sayonara kabukicho'): Toronto Review

Kabukicho Love Hotel Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival

Kabukicho Love Hotel Still - H 2014

A novel premise weighed down by smatterings of schmaltz.

A Korean escort, a porn-making student, a musician and a policewoman converge in a multi-strand drama set in a Tokyo motel.

Having reinvented himself in recent years as a stalwart in mainstream melodrama -- a run taking in weepies like April Bride and Yellow Elephant, or the uplifting story of a wheelchair-bound teacher's impact on his charges in Nobody's Perfect -- Japanese helmer Ryuichi Hiroki has returned to his indie, soft-porn "pink film" roots with his latest film. But only just: belying its international title and the presence of some steamy sex scenes -- all of which performed by its actors with gusto aplenty -- Kabukicho Love Hotel is very much in line with his recent, more conventional output, when what gets tugged is more the audience's heartstrings than on-screen G-strings.

This is, after all, a film boasting a theme song called "Believe in Love" -- and a cast featuring, among others, pop idols Atsuko Maeda (formerly the leader of the J-pop troupe AKB48) and Son Il-kwon, aka Roy of the boy-band 5tion. Bedlam, therefore, is certainly off the cards: instead, Kabukicho -- the name of Tokyo's, if not Japan's, most eminent red-light district -- is an ensemble drama thriving more in its criss-crossing multi-linear structure and also its representation of society's little people confronting their mundane lives. Repped by Nikkatsu -- actually the financier of Hiroki's early-career pinku-eiga output -- its bow at Toronto and Busan would probably secure the buzz it needs for its release back in Japan in January.

Maeda's importance as a calling card is underlined by her task of bookending the film, as her musician character Saya begins and then ends the film strumming a guitar and singing lovelorn numbers about melancholy on rotating beds and break-up, city-bolting blues. While delivering a fine turn here -- this is Maeda's latest foray into arthouse cinema in the past 12 months, following her lead roles in Kiyoshi Kurosawa's The Seventh Code and Nobuhiro Yamashita's Tamako in Moratorium -- the top-billed actress is on scant screen time here, her presence limited to a thin plotline about her character's moral dilemma in paying a price for fame.

The same goes for the other top-billed star here, Shota Sometani (who is also in Toronto with his mentor Sion Sono's latest outing Tokyo Tribe). As Saya's live-in partner, his character Toru hardly does much dramatic lifting throughout as he spends most of his screen time sulking and bristling at his existence: fired from a job at a five-star hotel, the young man survives -- unbeknownst to his girlfriend -- on a less glamorous job of managing a love hotel. His lethargy, at least, is useful during the film's first half-hour, as he is shown scurrying around at work; what is revealed here is the banal backstage propping up the a love hotel's exotica/erotica exterior, as Toru and his co-workers worry over maintenance, security and the lack of small change at the tills.

Somehow, Toru is just the observer of goings-on in the film, which is supposed to frame events within a 24-hour period. In fact, developments which happen to be personally relevant to him are the most contrived, such as when he runs into his young college-student sister Miyu (Asuka Hinoi) shooting a porn film in his hotel; their conversation, in which she delivers a hefty speech about her reason of dabbling in adult video and the social indifference in Japan, is too heavy-handed. Of course, there's also Toru's hesitance when he sees Saya heading into a room (again at his hotel -- talk about co-incidences in a city filled with these dives) with her producer -- a running concern which lacks rhyme or empathy.

There are other strands too, and perhaps the most prominent of the lot is the one involving Korean escort Heya (Lee Eun-woo, Moebius), who is going through her last day as a so-called "delivery girl" before heading back to her home country to open a shop with her mother. As she goes through the day, she is seen rowing and then making up with his boyfriend Chong-su (Roy), who earns a hard living as a cook at a Korean eatery and trying to understand Heya's job; enjoying the love and camaraderie offered by her kind and cuddly-fuddly escort service manager (Tomorowo Taguchi) and her fellow call-girls; and attending to the adoration and anguish of her clients.

And if that last turn of events seems too naive and fantastical, there's more: the long-suffering cleaner Suzuki (Kaho Minami) forced to hide his partner (Yutaka Matsushige) from view, even at home;  a "talent scout"/pimp (Shugo Oshinari) who sees his cynicism shattered by his latest catch, a runaway teenager (Miwako Wagatsuma) who regales him with tales of being abandoned and abused at home; a married detective (Aoba Kawai, My Man) trapped  in a Rear Window situation when she glimpses a fugitive while heading into a tryst with a colleague at the love hotel.

While Hiroki and his writers Haruhiko Arai and Futoshi Nakano have cleverly grafted all these divergent stories together, with the urgency and intimacy of these working-class tales channeled effectively by Atushiro Nabeshima's handheld camerawork. But the end-product is bulky and weighed down by surprisingly not by the sex, but by the frequent flashes of schmaltz (the appearance of Shin Yasui's twee musical leitmotif is also distracting) and superficial references to social problems (Heya is seen walking anxiously past a right-wing anti-Korean protest -- a frisson never to appear again in the film).

Just as the film's Japanese title suggested, Hiroki has certainly bid Kabukicho and its sleaze a long sayonara quite a while ago -- and now it's perhaps a challenge for him to discover that street-level vigor again without resorting back to the conventional drama he's relocated his talents to.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Contemporary World Cinema); also Busan International Film Festival (Windows on Asian Cinema)

Production companies:  W Fields in a presentation by Gambit

Cast: Shota Sometani, Atsuko Maeda, Lee Eun-woo, Roy (Son Il-kwon)

Director: Ryuichi Hiroki

Screenwriters: Haruhiko Arai, Futoshi Nakano

Producers: Mikihiko Hirata, Naoya Narita, Yasushi Minotaya, Kazuya Naito

Executive producers: Tadoyoshi Kubo, Osamu Fujioka

Director of photography: Atushiro Nabeshima

Production designer: Naoki Yamamoto

Editor: Junichi Kikuchi

Music: Shin Yasui

International Sales: Nikkatsu

In Japanese and Korean

No rating; 136 minutes