With its moody charm and pale, grainy look, Asyl: Park and Love Hotel (Pí¢ku ando rabuhoteru) offers a marked contrast to the recent wave of ravishing pop films by Tetsuya Nakashima (Kamikaze Girls, Memories of Matsuko) or Mika Ninagawa’s gorgeous Sakuran. Set in the Tokyo suburbs, with most of its sparse action taking place at a shabby ‘love hotel’, Asyl is a slow-burning but ultimately life-affirming debut by Izuru Kumasaka, filmed with a discreet intensity and a feeling of lingering, subtle oddity. Much in the same way as the film’s title plays with the double meaning of ‘asylum’ - as a sanctuary and a madhouse - Izuru attempts to infuse the episodic narrative, which follows four women of different ages struggling with isolation, loss, tedium and the trouble of everyday life, with a sense of purpose that is both enchanting and disturbing.
The main character in Asyl is the grouchy and strict hotel manager, Tsuyako (played by singer-turned-actress Lily) who has been running the unusual love hotel - it has a public park on its rooftop - by herself since her husband disappeared years earlier. However, Tsuyako’s world expands when Mika (Hikari Kajiwara), a 13-year-old runaway with silver bleached hair, enters the free oasis in the city. Guided by the feeling that she has no place else to go after seeing her father with his new family, Mika seeks shelter overnight with Tsuyako. This is the prelude to further encounters between them and two other women at the hotel: Tsuki, a housewife whose daily fitness walk has taken her past the hotel for years until her routine is dramatically altered, and 17-year-old Marika, the hotel’s only regular guest, who actually uses the establishment for its intended purpose, regularly popping in with a different man in tow.
Although the fantastical rooftop location, complete with swings, benches and toys, would provide a suitable playground for an urban fairy tale, Asyl is far from fantasy, as Izuru’s main concern lies in credibly exploring his characters’ motivations. The frequent use of close-ups strikes a fine balance between empathy and observation, without flaunting the women’s emotions or sentimentalising their struggles. In the absence of much dialogue and backstory, Izuru creates a potent degree of sensitivity in his warm, insightful yet sometimes detached depiction of his characters’ actions and reactions.
All this may not sound exciting on paper, and Asyl certainly has its flaws: it feels overly long and the pace occasionally flags, while its desire to avoid too much dramatic tension makes it difficult to fully engage with the story. Yet, it is a gentle film, with some wonderful low-key performances and beautifully crafted moments that mark Kumasaka out as a talent to watch. After all, Asyl demonstrates that it is still possible to craft an affecting, unpretentious and quietly entertaining film outside the framework of the pop genre.