Ryuichi Hiroki has become a victim of his own success, though his studio employers probably don’t see it that way. This one-time maker of so-called pink films (i.e., soft pornography), who became internationally celebrated for intimate indie dramas like “Vibrator” from 2003 and “Yawarakai Seikatsu (It’s Only Talk)” from 2005, has morphed into the local industry’s go-to guy for weepy romantic dramas — a genre that has been a big money-maker here for decades.
Hiroki brought his own style and sensibility to such films as “Yomei Ikkagetsu no Hanayome (April Bride)” and “Raiou (The Lightning Tree).” But although he drew career-peak performances from his female stars in these films, he couldn’t do much about the formula tropes or commercial imperatives of his stories. He never directed a truly bad film, but compared to his earlier, bolder indie work, he wasn’t making what those who celebrated that work — myself included — really wanted to watch.
When his latest, “Sayonara Kabukicho (Kabukicho Love Hotel),” was announced, I hoped it would mark a return to Hiroki’s indie form. That hope has been abundantly realized.
Set mostly in the titular love hotel of the English title, in the heart of Shinjuku’s Kabukicho entertainment district, the film is an ensemble drama of a type that goes back to “Grand Hotel” (1932), revolving around a young hotel manager, Toru (Shota Sometani), who regards the job as a temporary fall from grace. As he is forever reminding all and sundry, he once worked for a five-star hotel and will again. First, though, he has to get through an eventful shift.
Working from a script by Haruhiko Arai, who also wrote “Vibrator” and “It’s Only Talk,” Hiroki films this shift with a punchy dry humor and no sentimentality whatsoever. At the same time, he doesn’t turn the film into a frantic screwball comedy.
Instead, Hiroki views the hotel’s denizens, staff and guests alike, as distinct individuals, not types, with an affection that is never forced. His approach may seem low-key and leisurely compared to the over-heated, highly plotted local norm, but in the end it hit me harder — I cried two tears for every laugh.
Toru begins the above-mentioned shift in a bad mood, since he has quarreled with his musician girlfriend, Saya (Atsuko Maeda), who is on the verge of signing a deal with a record label and leaving her scuffling days behind her. Toru is understandably concerned that he will end up on the discard pile as well.
First, however, duty calls, beginning with a porn film shoot that requires his attention — and renews his once-close acquaintance with the star (Asuka Hinoi).
Meanwhile, Heya (Lee Eun-woo), a Korean call girl, is working her last day at the hotel. Soon after, she will leave Japan for home, a development that upsets her boyfriend Chong-su (Roy from pop group 5tion, aka Son Il-kwon), though her nice-guy manager (Tomorowo Taguchi) is more understanding.
The hardworking hotel cleaning lady (Kaho Minami) also has reason to celebrate. Her live-in boyfriend (Yutaka Matsushige) will soon be free of a crime he committed years ago, since the statute of limitations will expire. But a dogged female detective (Aoba Kawai) has taken an interest in the case, though she comes to the hotel as a guest, not a cop.
Finally, a talent scout (Shugo Oshinari) lures a cute runaway teen (Miwako Wagatsuma) to the hotel with the intent of adding her to his stable of underage hookers. She seems almost too easy a mark, until she tells him her story.
As usual, Hiroki works marvels with his female lead. Maeda, in her films to date, has mostly played to the cute, likable, approachable image she cultivated in AKB48, the all-girl pop group she once headlined. Hiroki takes her out of this comfort zone, in a risky scene that could have easily been cringe-worthy, but instead becomes unexpectedly affecting.
Also good in quite a different way is Lee, who reveals her character’s isolation and ordinary humanity with a transparency that charms and sears. No hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold cliches here; of all the non-natives I’ve seen playing fish-out-of-water roles in Japanese films, she is the most convincing.
As the lead, Sometani does his familiar tired-of-it-all turn, if with comic twists that makes his manager amusingly self-deluded, instead of merely annoying. But the dilemmas and personalities of those around him are more interesting. Check into “Kabukicho Love Hotel” to find out why.
Fun fact: At a Jan. 8 screening of “Sayonara Kabukicho (Kabukicho Love Hotel)” at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan, Japanese reporters were chomping at the bit to ask Shota Sometani about his recent marriage to fellow actor Rinko Kikuchi, but were told the topic was off-limits. Sometani, however, volunteered his own statement: “We’ve just gotten married and don’t have any children, but as the head of the house, I’ll try my best.”