DIRECTED BY: Sion Sono
FEATURING: Ami Tomite, Kaho, Shinnosuke Mitsushima, Megumi Kagurazaka
PLOT: A clan of vampires forced to live in hiding attempt to tip the scales of power by capturing a group of humans in their hotel fortress and turning them into a generational supply of food; however, their perennial aboveground enemies have conspired to birth an avenger during a cosmic convergence, and now that she has come of age, the final battle between the two warring forces is at hand.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Aside from being a TV miniseries, and therefore technically beyond our purview, “Tokyo Vampire Hotel” has a difficult time figuring out what it wants to be. Although it is built upon a foundation of gore and slapstick and features elaborate and sometimes confusing worldbuilding, the story works best at a character level, focusing on the motivations of its complicated leads. At its best, the weirdness tends to be more window dressing than of a true mission of the series.
COMMENTS: Following my lengthy discourse on the cinematic genre of vampires, as well as my brief sojourn into the vault of the Nikkatsu film studio, watching this 9-part bloodsucker miniseries felt a bit like old home week. Fortunately, that’s not to say it was boring to watch Sion Sono’s take on the legend. Far from it; as much as he may be cherry-picking his favorite parts of the mythos, what he has created is anything but a retread.
If anything, Tokyo Vampire Hotel has way too much going on. The very first episode opens with a deeply uncomfortable mass shooting, which serves as a springboard for the kind of violence-chase set pieces that would be completely at home in an 80s Hollywood action movie. But this quickly fractures into a character study of our two heroines: Manami, an orphan raised under trying circumstances to become the vanquisher of an entire race of vampires, and K, the underground defender whose unrequited love is consistently co-opted for the violent means of others. When not delving into their backstories, Sono is creating the candy-colored, blood-drenched world of the titular hotel, populated by eccentric characters that include a vampire queen who keeps shrinking into nothingness, a wildly attired, dreadlocked hepcat whose own father sold him to vampires as a baby in exchange for becoming Japan’s prime minister, and a maternal figure who may be housing the entire hotel within her nether regions. Add into that a ballroom full of lovelorn humans who have been lured into the hotel (and for whom seemingly every one is provided a rich backstory), a cult of hippie-like Romanians who are connected to Tokyo by tunnel, and a late-series jump forward in time that almost completely restarts the story, and the effect is downright dizzying. It’s legitimately weird, but after a while, it becomes a “Mad Lib” kind of weird: oddness courtesy of dissonance.
Which only makes it all the more astonishing that Sono then carved this 400-minute epic into a feature-length version of his tale. My colleague Giles Edwards had the opportunity to review the short-form Hotel, and noted how visibly apparent it was that something was lost in the editing. Having watched three times as much movie as he did, I’m sure that he’s right, but I’m also deeply torn. While the complexity of the story and the depth of the characterization makes it inconceivable that you could cut into the body without harming the patient, there is also so much that cries out to be pruned away. How many of Manami’s foster parents must we meet before we understand the damage done by her upbringing? Must we see every single human in the hotel, one by one, as they respond to the demands of their captors? Much of the story serves to flesh out what would otherwise be an incomprehensible battle of outré characterizations, but the full-length Tokyo Vampire Hotel remains a flabby affair.
This is especially frustrating when considering the story elements that aren’t explored at all. That bit with the prime minister? It’s shared with us as character motivation, defining a character’s hatred of the venality of humans. But it goes nowhere else. One of the masters of the hotel is the revealed to be the infamous murderer and suspected vampire Elizabeth Báthory, but to no particular end. Most frustrating is the short shrift given to K’s origin story, which is unusually shocking and poignant in the moment, when her surprise love interest Noah is cruelly taken from her. When that story is revisited in present day, though, and we meet Noah again, the impact of that formative moment in her life is minimized, possibly even forgotten. For all the story Sono does lavish his attention on, there is so much more that lingers at the edges, vestigial tales that never get their due.
There’s a lot to like in Tokyo Vampire Hotel, led by Kaho, who is riveting in the role of K. Tightly wound but deeply emotional, she gets many chances to be awesome, commanding the screen even when it is filled with crazy people, speaking Romanian, and culminating in a brilliant fight scene where she takes out battalion of vampires in a hotel hallway. The visuals are consistently compelling, whether the colors are eye-popping or drained out. And there’s that insanely catchy theme song by tricot, summing up the whole series’ mood in a tight minute.
But in the end, it’s kind of a mess. Sono is awash in storylines, but unable to commit to the two or three that are most alluring. In an interview with The Japan Times, he noted that his Amazon overlords gave him a lot of freedom. “There are a lot of things you can’t do on television, but (with this series) it’s totally different… they weren’t very strict with their rules.” He took that opportunity and ran wild with it, and the result is unequivocally unusual and fascinating. But maybe with a couple more rules, it could have been great.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“You know what? I’m kinda glad I saw this version of Tokyo Vampire Hotel. Sure, the series probably makes more sense, but there’s unique enjoyment to be had from watching something this utterly skullfuckingly deranged (not to mention seeing it with a cinema audience instead of at home). If you get the chance to see it, I recommend taking up. If not: the show’s on Amazon Prime. Just fast-forward through anything resembling in-depth dialogue, and you’ll accurately simulate the experience of Tokyo Vampire Hotel: The Movie.” – Andrew Todd, Birth Movies Death (Festival cut review)
2 thoughts on “CAPSULE: TOKYO VAMPIRE HOTEL (2017)”
I think I liked this better than Shane or Giles (who admittedly gave it an “incomplete”); I would recommend it for the art design (I wouldn’t mind living in that modern deco hotel for all eternity), the surrealism of the scenes involving the Empress and her sister (vampires can turn into hotels? really?), and some unbelievable, eye-popping battle scenes (the final massacre rivals Sono’s work in Why Don’t You Play in Hell?, and seems to involve more extras than could possibly fit into the hotel lobby). A few minor observations: although this is technically only 9 episodes long, Amazon Prime split episode 8 into two parts to create 10 episodes. The first several episodes have a text prologue explaining the lore of the competing Corvin and Dracula vampire clans; they get progressively longer with each episode until you think they’ll be novella-length by the final episode, but they suddenly stop at episode 4. With so many characters and interlocking loyalties rife for opportunities for double-crosses, sometimes Hotel plays like a horror soap opera. And Shane rightly notes that Sono’s approach to narrative is unconventional, to say the least: he focuses on a lot of backstories and minor character arcs you wouldn’t expect, while leaving some of the major plot points relatively unexplained (like exactly how and why a vampire becomes a living hotel). This leads to the odd situation where the series seems to climax in episode 7, with the remainder feeling like an extended coda or even a sequel, with new main characters and a tone that’s quieter and far different than what came before. Yes, it’s a bit of a mess, but a beautiful and worthy one.
They didn’t cover more of the prime minister bit in the TV series? That was something I was most intrigued about while sitting through the Cliff’s Notes version this past summer.
(And I agree with you, Greg, I could live in such a hotel indefinitely — but would pray to God that I didn’t end up in the Yellow-lit room.)
Judging from Shane’s review, it seems that Sion Sono kept the tone of the show and the stripped down “movie” version just about the same: an enjoyable but sloppy combination of “What The?”-meets-minutiae.