“Nudists probably don’t go jogging.” From these first words spoken in the voiceover that dominates much of Yuya Ishii’s The Tokyo Night Sky is Always the Densest Shade of Blue, we are offered unexpected, often poetic insights. Other more morbid, choice bits include:
“The moment you love Tokyo, it’s like you’ve killed yourself.”
“Just by saying ‘die’ I achieved isolation.”
“When you use the word ‘love,’ does your mouth smell of blood?”
“Falling in love with someone is like killing them very softly.”
This new drama screening at Japan Cuts is one of those narratives dominated by coincidence, aimlessness, and struggles both economic and existential. While the voiceover or dialog does add for some striking moments, they also run the risk of making the two main characters unbelievable. This is the type of film—a love story between two aimless Tokyo twenty-somethings—that succeeds on its believability.
Mika (Shizuka Ishibashi) is a young woman who works as both a nurse and a hostess at a “girlie bar.” She is often seen as depressed and wallowing in her own angsty thoughts, activities or states of mind shared with Shinji (Sosuke Ikematsu) a construction worker who is trying to deal with his own issues. Tokyo Night Sky is one of those stories that moves in a wave-like current, bringing these two hesitant lovers together and apart again, leaving the audience legitimately not knowing whether the outcome will be romantic, realistic or both. In some ways it is about the recklessness of youth, but also about the difficulty that goes with living in expensive, urban areas—a subject that is identifiable with mass numbers of young people around the world.
Mika witnesses a death in the hospital she works at early on in the picture, an experience that returns when a young man she is dating drops dead for no predictable reason. This event brings her and Shinji together, as the deceased man is one of his fellow construction workers. Instead of the plot working into a romance at that time, the two protagonists continue isolated in their emptiness, a state of being difficult for the both of them to shake. This preoccupation with death and inability to believe in love as a tangible thing is a perspective that the film often returns to.
As predictable by the title, the film is just as much a portrait of Tokyo itself, or at least certain parts of the metropolis. The expansiveness of the city is remarkable, colored lights sprawling vertically sometimes more than horizontally. Shibuya and Shinjuku are both mentioned in the dialog, evoking the density and anonymity of the populations in these two bustling neighborhoods. Mika, who is predominantly quiet, and Shinji who cannot stop talking once he starts, travel through these areas feeling alone, even if they continue running into each other. Neither of them want to open up to the other, a plight that is typical of technology-addicted youth of that time and place. Their angstiness makes sense, but the film exhausts these feelings, or lack thereof, so much that viewers may not even be able to consciously notice the narrative arc.
The cinematography, often focused on our protagonists “lost in a crowd” blurs the movement of passersby in a way similar to Christopher Doyle’s camera work in Wong Kar-Wai films. That being said, it never catches the same essence that Doyle is able to manifest, coming off as a contemporary imitation. The slowness of the plot is somewhat relatable to the cinema of Tsai Ming-Liang, for example What Time is it There? (2001), but Tokyo Night Sky… does not have the structural qualities that the Malaysian-Chinese filmmaker applies. Tokyo Night Sky… is halfway in between being an art film and a hip romantic drama aimed at Japanese millennials.
Getting back to the script, the successful pieces of dialog are often padded with statements or questions that are very on-the-nose, such as, “Have you really thought about what it means to live in Tokyo?” These words become sometimes novelistic, removing the humanity of our maybe-couple just at the moments we might just want them to shut up and get together already. Overall the film is worth watching, as Mika and Shinji evolve into awkwardly endearing characters; people who have ever had relationship problems or an inability to articulate their desires—that being virtually everyone who has made it into their twenties—should be able to identify with these two imperfect people. Tokyo Night Sky… tries to create ideal “moments” with our protagonists and their surroundings, sometimes working a little too hard in the case of a young woman busking with her electric guitar among the crowd. It turns out that the story returns to this character so many times that it eventually works by the conclusion of the picture. Other memorable instances involve Shinji’s coworker who’s pant-zipper breaks, leaving him awkwardly vulnerable. Near the end Shinji buys Mika a bow for her hair that costs 1200 yen, an accessory that ultimately does not suit her, but an action that is typical of so many young lovers trying to impress and endear themselves to each other.
The Tokyo Night Sky is Always the Densest Shade of Blue is a movie worth watching if you are in a depressed or existential mood. It transports viewers to the relentlessly-photogenic city that could be observed for days. Mika and Shinji are not happy people although they may be emoting with feelings of confusion that leads to love. In this sense, at least, it is realistic—this is not a relationship that is full of movie magic, but rather one that many in the audience will be able to nod their heads at knowingly.