Masayuki Suzuki, who should not be confused with the artist, is a director that does not have any intentions to make a name for himself internationally. Yet, that does not mean that his work, focused on bringing stories to life for domestic audiences, are without any appeal for international audiences. One such narrative is Masquerade Hotel, adapted from the 2011 novel of the same name by Keigo Higashino.
Despite having booked a non-smoking room, Takahito Ayabe (Gaku Hamada) complains about a penetrating cigarette smell in his room. Receiving the complaint, Naomi Yamagishi (Masami Nagasawa), one of the front desk workers at hotel Cortesia Tokyo, goes to meet the guest to inform his that another room is being prepared for him.
The Tokyo Metropolitan police is currently investigating a serial murder case. They discover that the codes that the murderer leaves with his victims are coordinates that reveal the location of his next murder. The fourth murder will, according to these numbers, take place at Hotel Cortesia Tokyo. To find the murderer, the police sees no other option than to start an undercover operation in the hotel. Officer Sekine (Yuki Izumisawa) becomes part of the bell desk lead by bell captain Sugishita (-). Assistant inspector Nitta (Takuya Kimura) is going undercover as part the front desk team and will receive his training from Yamagishi.
Masquerade Hotel is a pleasant mystery film that offers some nice twists, false turns, and some surprising revelations. Yet, despite being pleasant and providing audiences a good time, Suzuki’s narrative is not fully able satisfy the spectator. In our view, the demand for Masquerade Hotel to be easy digestible for larger audiences has turned it into a series of pleasant appetizers (a little bit of tension here, a bit of light-heartedness there, a bit of drama on top) rather than a sophisticated meal that offers an explosion of taste.
Luckily, even if it falls into the trap of mainstream entertainment, Masquerade Hotel does succeed in providing a pleasant exploration of the inherent conflict between the philosophy of a high class hotel and the mission of the police. The central dynamic that structures the narrative is a conflict of priorities. While the hotel’s staff is devoted to ensure the guest’s safety and satisfy their desire to be served and entertained, the police is singularly focused on catching the perpetrator. Otherwise put, the staff are devoted to protect the lies, deceptions, and secrets of their honoured guests, while the police suspects any person who acts suspicious, wants to deceive other, or tries to enact a lie in plain sight.
This conflict is nowhere as evident as within the clash between Yamagishi and Nitta. Yet, their intense dislike for each other is not only caused by a difference in priorities, but also by Nitta’s misunderstanding of what it means and what it takes to be a hotel staff at a high-class hotel.
It quickly becomes clear to the spectator that Nitta is forced by Yamagishi to fully embody the image of a hotel staff. Yamagishi’s strict and direct comments on Nitta’s lackadaisical attitude and his vestimentary carelessness underline, contrary to his expectations, that to clothe oneself with such image is not merely about wearing the uniform and roughly looking the part. Besides wearing a uniform, one’s body language (facial expression, one’s gait, posture, …etc.) needs to breathe a graciousness and an inviting openness towards the guest, one’s presence needs to be refined (e.g. well-groomed and cleanly shaven), and one’s signifiers need to ooze with respect and subservience.
Nitta’s stance as detective is, not unsurprisingly, not without effect on Yamagishi. By preventing a fraud from happening with his intuition and investigation skills, Nitta succeeds in planting a seed of doubt in Yamagishi’s mind about the guests. He actually causes some distance between Yamagishi as subject and the imagery ego of front-desk staff she clothes herself with. While, at first, she desperately tries to protect the lie of the guest by explaining any discrepancies away, Nitta’s insistence on suspecting those who are worthy of his suspicion forces her to confront the irresolvable gaps that problematize the deceptive image certain guests are presenting to the staff and the other guests. The riddle that starts puzzling her concerns the blind Yoko Katagiri (Takako Matsu). While she, due to her identification with the purpose of the hotel, does her best to protect and believe the lie Katagiri is spinning, she starts, much to her dismay, to doubt this old blind lady and her true intentions.
The first half of Masquerade Hotel is structured in an episodic manner and is focused on developing the relation between Yamagishi and Nitta and offer an insight in the role the hotel staff plays in ensuring the guest’s enjoyment and satisfaction. Each episode plays an integral role in letting both Nitta and Yamagishi gain a better understanding of each other as subject and grasp the meaning of their occupational position. Yet, soon enough, suspicious things happen at the hotel, events that might or might not be related to the case.
Kenji Kurihara (Katsuhisa Namase) is a guest that Nitta recognizes from somewhere. While Nitta tries to find out where he knows Kurihara from, he is suddenly called and asked to satisfy an unreasonable request. Eriko Yasuno (Nanao), for that matter, attempts to hide within the hotel from an older man called Tatebayashi (Takashi Ukaji) who, according to her, stalks her. This man eventually shows up at the front desk of the hotel, but rather than asking the staff to divulge Yasuno’s room number, he informs them of his reservation at the hotel. And Keiko Takayama (Atsuko Maeda), who upon her arrival at the hotel is given an early wedding present by a friend. Yet, Nitta immediately realizes that something is off about the wrapping.
Masquerade Hotel has a composition that satisfyingly mixes static and dynamic moments and has an engaging flow. Suzuki does not only plays thoughtfully with static and dynamic moments to deliver visual enticing sequences, but his use of the cut imbues his composition with a flow that pulls the spectator into the narrative (Cine-note 1). Yet, Suzuki’s cutting does not only result in moments with a satisfying fast-pace but also in long takes that have, by their dynamism alone, a highly enjoyable feel.
Yet, the visual pleasure of Masquerade Hotel is not only function of the inviting dynamism, but also of Suzuki’s pleasant exploitation of geometry (of the hotel’s interior). He does not only exploit symmetry within his shot-compositions, but also creates many frames within frames. This play with symmetry adds a subtle artistic flair to the composition.
The music in Masquerade Hotel is varied and utilized richly to support the flow of the narrative. While one could even argue that Suzuki relies a bit too much on music to dictate the emotional flavour of the certain scenes, the music is nevertheless effective in infusing tension when necessary, highlight the suspicion nature of certain interactions or acts, and heighten the touching nature of certain events.
An important element that allows Masquerade Hotel to please the spectator is the chemistry between Masami Nagasawa and Takuya Kimura. Both actors breathe a subtle light-heartedness into the tension and verbal clashes between their characters that pleases the spectator but does not complicates the seriousness of the murder case at hand. Moreover, Masami Nagasawa brings the strict refinedness of her character as well as her changing feelings for Nitta pleasantly to life while Takuya Kimura enacts the frustration and struggle that marks his character in an enjoyable way.
Masquerade Hotel is a pleasant narrative that provides an interesting mystery, a nice exploration of hotel-philosophy, and offers an engaging dynamic between the two leads. Yet, Suzuki’s narrative is far from an essential viewing. Suzuki’s narrative, due to being made for the masses, is too clean – the dark edges of the narrative are nicely cut off and emotions of the spectator carefully controlled – which causes the finale to please the spectator but not satisfy him.
Cine-note 1: Suzuki also decorates his composition with slow-motion moments.