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Peek inside a Japanese sex hotel

Love Hotels are part of a growing global phenomenon where normally conservative patrons explore their sexual fantasies – we speak to one man who's made a movie about them

With their pay-by-the-hour rooms, S&M vending machines and “accessories” delivered via pneumatic tube, love hotels are used by 2.5 million people a day in Japan. Phil Cox & Hikaru Toda spent years inside the Angelo Love Hotel in Osaka, gaining intimate access to its clientele, from a family man who suspends himself from the ceiling in a gimp suit, to a couple of pensioners who regularly rent a disco-themed room complete with flashing dancefloor. Their resulting documentary, Love Hotel, is screening at the Reykjavik International Film Festival this year as part of a non-fiction strand including John Pilger’s new doc on media’s role in conflict, The War You Don’t See and Marc Weise’s When Under Fire, Shoot Back on the infamous Bang Bang Club photojournalists who covered violence in South Africa’s townships in the early 90s. Co-director of Love Hotel Phil Cox tells us about the years he spent inside the hidden world of Angelo’s Love Hotel.

Which was your favourite room at the Angelo Love Hotel?

Phil Cox: The 'train room' was a personal favourite and took me a while to get my head around. It was an exact replica of a Japanese subway train carriage with extra mirrors and handles designed for different positions. Then there was the boxing room, with a bed set inside a proper boxing ring, complete with lights and gloves you could order from reception. The space ship room, the hospital ward room, the animal room… there’s even one with a mini golf putting hole in it… You choose them from an electronic menu in reception.  

Who uses them?

Phil Cox: They cater for old and young, and all sorts of different needs or moods. There are huge expensive Love Hotels for businessmen, to small rural cheap ones for labourers. They’re anonymous, private and no one has ever really accessed them, to film. They’re not brothels and they’re not just for sex, they’re for dressing up, karaoke, parties and even just being alone. There are 37,000 of them in Japan – not all are that nice of course, but they are a fascinating space. I realised that in one love hotel, I potentially had very intimate stories of rich and poor, old and young – a window into Japanese society.

How hard was it to get people on camera?

Phil Cox: It wasn’t easy! We were always very honest and very clear about what we hoped for. Inside the Love Hotel, people were much more willing to talk to us. It’s a mental space where everything that can’t be said outside in a conformist society, can be expressed inside. It is a place to let it all out. We worked for years on the relationships with our subjects. Some of them, such as the married couple, used the filming to explore their relationship more and others like the gay couple wanted to be filmed so an audience could see them how they really were without prejudice or distortion.

The Angelo Love Hotel is forced to close in the end; why the crack-down on Love Hotels?

Phil Cox: Japan is enforcing a controversial law called 'The Entertainment Law' across the country, which focuses on controls on the nightlife and entertainment industry. Clubs must now have licenses for people to dance after midnight or they risk closure. Love Hotels must have regulation-sized mirrors, there’s a crack down on S&M and vending machines – it’s penalising an industry which clearly services a great need, as people go to love hotels in their millions. Japan is becoming increasingly conservative and nationalist – there’s even a re-look at the pacifist constitution now. Love Hotels are a space of sexual freedom and many are being forced to tone down, to either become business hotels or close. Japan has a rigid, demanding work ethic, a deeply conformist culture and tight living spaces and that all leads to the very human necessity of a space to let it all out. Originally, they were machiai-chaya, a sort of a tea house with a back room for couples to use because traditional Japanese houses were open plan with many generations under one roof. I think as a concept it’s a progressive, important space. Many western industrialised cities share the same problems of overwork and little time for intimacy – but we don’t have a space to let it out like they do in Japan. 

Did you have to censor anything from your documentary?

Phil Cox: We never censored anything although in many ways it was a dangerous film to make. My fear was to make a voyeuristic film from a very western point of view, showing Japanese people as being weird and freaky with sex in Love Hotels – very much a Lost in Translation stereotype, which this is not. We’re all made up of crazy desires and curiosities. In a Love Hotel you can maybe follow through and explore those things. All people need a place to 'let it out' and Love Hotel perfectly serves this purpose.

Love Hotel is screening as part of the Reykjavik International Film Festival. To learn more about the film and future screenings check out the Facebook page.