Kabukicho Love Hotel

Kabukicho Love Hotel (Sayonara Kabukicho さよなら歌舞伎町), Japan 2014

Johannes Schonherr

On a bright morning, Saya (played by former AKB48 member Atsuko Maeda) sits on the balcony of her apartment overlooking Shinjuku, plays guitar and sings a sad love song whose lyrics mention a “revolving bed at the love hotel.”

Her boyfriend Toru (Shota Sometani), still laying on the futon, casually remarks, “Love hotels don’t have revolving beds anymore.” “How would you know?” Saya asks back and Toru bites his lip.

Atsuko Maeda and Shota Sometani on the international flyer for Kabukicho Love Hotel
Atsuko Maeda and Shota Sometani on the international flyer for Kabukicho Love Hotel

We are in the very first minute of Ryuichi Hiroki’s new movie Kabukicho Love Hotel (original title Sayonara Kabukicho), long before the opening credits roll, and it would already be a spoiler to tell why Toru bites his lip. It’s that kind of a movie.

The plot, the characters and their secrets reveal themselves piece by piece throughout the film, often in unexpected ways. Reading about the characters and their stories / motivations before watching the film would just take away from the many deliciously twisted surprises the movie provides.

The film centers on 24 hours at a love hotel in the Kabukicho red light district in Shinjuku, Tokyo, starting from the beginning of the staff morning shift and lasting till the morning next day.

Atsuko Maeda and Shota Sometani start the day
Atsuko Maeda and Shota Sometani start the day

Love Hotels

Love hotels rent their rooms by the hour in the daytime and have a flat rate for the night. They are exclusively aimed at couples who look for an anonymous place to have sex.

“Couple” being a very widely framed term here, it includes prostitutes and their clients, folks cheating on their spouses, and people engaging in a spontaneous one-night stand.

Occasionally, rooms at love hotels are booked for Adult Video (porno) shootings.

In the duration of the 24 hours the film captures, all the above mentioned activities and more, much more play out.

Some of the stories are funny, some rather sad, some involve graphic sex and some involve subdued violence. For some of the main characters, this will be their last day in Kabukicho. They expect their lives to change dramatically the very next day.

Be it that they return home for a fresh start after having made enough money in Tokyo, be it that the long-awaited expiration date of their statute of limitations is finally coming up.

We get hookers, criminals, perverts but also a good number of rather ordinary people who only get drawn into the situations taking place by circumstance or poor decision-making.

The hotel staff, on ordinary days a bored bunch doing not much else than changing soiled bed sheets while living on a diet of instant noodles, get involved in the unfolding set of dramas as well.

Love hotel staff ponder what to do about the penniless runaway girl that had run up a high bill
Love hotel staff ponder what to do about the penniless runaway girl that had run up a high bill


The film was shot on location in Kabukicho and in nearby Shin Okubo Koreatown, local landmarks like Hanazono Shrine can easily be spotted. Interestingly, director Ryuichi Hiroki stayed away from filming the dark glitz and glamor of nightly lit Kabukicho.

His outdoor shots were taken at daytime and as a result, Kabukicho doesn’t come off as dangerously mysterious hentai paradise but rather as a place where actual people live and work.

Lee Eun-woo plays a frequent visitor to the love hotel, known to some as Hena, to others as Ilia
Lee Eun-woo plays a frequent visitor to the love hotel, known to some as Hena, to others as Ilia

Ryuichi Hiroki

Ryuichi Hiroki has had a long career as director in Japanese pink cinema (soft core sex cinema) before he achieved international acclaim with his 2003 movie Vibrator, telling the story of an epic cross-country drive by a confused, drink-happy Tokyo suburb girl looking for romance, sex and meaning in life and the cool young bleach-blond truck driver who takes her on the road with him all the way to Niigata and back.

Asked if he needed to do much research for his new film at a press conference at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club Japan in Tokyo, Hiroki said that he did not have to do any research on love hotels at all. He has shot so many pink movies in the rented rooms of love hotels over the years that he is really familiar with the places and the dramas occasionally unfolding there, he said.

That knowledge provides the base of the film. The details, how things work on a daily basis at a love hotel, the booking procedure, the folding of the sheets, the placement of the condoms, the rules of the house and their enforcement.

Set upon that base are the stories playing out. Hiroki typically remains coolly understated even in the most tumultuous moments. A customer gets violent and the staff has to interfere? Sure, fists will fly. For a second or two. Till the assailant’s glasses fly away and he just folds, sobbing. Just as it would most likely be in real life when an overexcited, drug-addled Japanese businessman breaks down.

It is exactly that realism, that almost documentary style look at the daily life at a typical Kabukicho love hotel that makes some of the more outlandish and weird stories told in the film so convincing. Against the background of a real love hotel almost nothing feels strange.

Director Ryuichi Hiroki
Director Ryuichi Hiroki

Kabukicho Love Hotel (Japanese original title: Sayonara Kabukicho)

Japan 2014
Directed by Ryuichi Hiroki, with Atsuko Maeda, Shota Sometani, Lee Eun-woo, Tomorowo Taguchi
Running time: 135 mins

In theaters

Sayonara Kabukicho has its theatrical start in Japan on January 24th 2015.

In Japanese theaters, the film will of course be shown without English subtitles. The dialogues are however crucial.

After the festivals in Toronto, Pusan, Hawaii and Singapore where the film played in 2014, the movie is expected to be screened in many more international film festivals worldwide with English subtitles.

Flyer for Ryuichi Hiroki's Vibrator (2003)
Flyer for Ryuichi Hiroki’s Vibrator (2003)

Movie website: www.sayonara-kabukicho.com
(in Japanese)

Japanese Trailer

The Japanese and the international trailer show different scenes from the film.

International (English subtitled) trailer

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