Is Haruka Ayase the Japanese version of Anne Hathaway? In everything from their perky public personas and sterling work ethic to their toothy smiles and flawless complexions, the two stars symbolize a type of good-girl perfection. And yet they also rub some imperfect types the wrong way, though Hathaway is the undoubted winner in the most-disliked-celebrity contest.

I swing back and forth about Ayase. For every film like Hirokazu Koreeda’s “Our Little Sister” (2015), to which she brought a Setsuko Hara-like grace and poise, she makes others like “Galaxy Turnpike” (2015), “The Kodai Family” (2016) and now time-travel fantasy “Honnouji Hotel,” playing heroines who are pure, cute and dim.

Based on an original script by Tomoko Aizawa and directed by Masayuki Suzuki, “Honnouji Hotel” is another local film that presents historical drama in the guise of “what if” fantasy. “Princess Toyotomi” (2011) — on which Aizawa and Suzuki also worked with Ayase — is another. That movie premised a “secret government” for the city of Osaka going back 400 years.

Honnouji Hotel
Run Time 118 mins
Language Japanese
Opens JAN. 14

This time our heroine, Mayuko (Ayase), is a woman out of work — her company went bankrupt — but engaged to a nice, manly guy, Yoshioka (Hiroyuki Hirayama), who tells her not to worry her pretty head about anything: He will make all the big decisions for her, beginning with arrangements for their wedding in Kyoto.

A part of Mayuko wants to go along with this — she admits that she is lacking anything resembling purpose or passion — but a part of her also resists this slide into wifedom with a guy she realizes she barely knows. In Kyoto to meet her fiance’s parents, she checks into the Honnouji Hotel, an imposing Western-style pile presided over by an excruciatingly polite manager (Morio Kazama). There, she steps into an ancient elevator and steps out into June, 1582, and at the Honnoji Temple, on whose site the hotel was built. Powerful warlord Oda Nobunaga (Shinichi Tsutsumi) is staying there with his retainers, including his loyal page Mori Ranmaru (Gaku Hamada).

As every Japanese schoolchild knows, Nobunaga was aiming to unite Japan under his leadership when one of his generals, Akechi Mitsuhide, mounted a successful coup d’etat. For the purposes of the plot, this story serves almost solely as a life lesson for the directionless, drifting Mayuko. Nobunaga died in pursuit of his dream — he committed seppuku (ritual suicide) rather than be captured by Mitsuhide’s men —so what is her excuse for not having a dream, period?

Before we arrive at this point, however, our clueless heroine undergoes a historical cram course, beginning with samurai etiquette, of which she knows nothing. Watching her blithely violate rule after rule, including the one about calling Nobunaga by his proper name, is mildly funny, though I had to wonder how she had managed to escape the basic education in things feudal that many Japanese used to get along with their mother’s milk — and thousands of jidai geki (period dramas).

As Mayuko travels back and forth on the elevator between the past and present, despite the life-or-death dangers she faces in the former, she comes to certain realizations. Some should have been blindingly apparent from the beginning, such as her power to change the course of history. Intended as charming, her ignorance begins to feel obtuse. And some of the “facts” she learns, such as Nobunaga’s vision of a peaceful, happy country, are dubious. (Presumably this hoped-for paradise would be another feudal dictatorship, if with a more human face than the one that actually dominated Japan for 250 years.)

My main problem with the film, though, was less its conservative celebration of the samurai ethic, self-destruction included, than its view of female intelligence as exemplified by its Miss Average heroine, who is hardly the brightest bulb in the Honnouji Hotel chandelier.

Sweet but stupid, it seems, still sells tickets, but smart, as Ayase’s brilliant career illustrates, is what rules in the real world, isn’t it?

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.