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Tokyo Night Sky Is Always the Densest Shade of Blue, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Not the usual sort of Tokyo love story."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2017 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: It's unusual for a film to be based upon a book of poetry, even one with a title like "The Tokyo Night Sky Is Always the Densest Shade of Blue" which frequently allows one of its characters to narrate with a voice that is piquant in its cynicism. Seeing the credit for poet Tahi Sihate is a little more surprising given that director Yuya Ishii adapts it into a film that has a strong narrative despite appearing to be just as focused on what its characters think as what they do.

The narration comes from Mika (Shizuka Ishibashi), a nurse in Tokyo who earns extra money in a hostess bar, though as you might expect from someone whose thoughts tilt toward the dark, she's pouring drinks rather than putting on a big smile and flirting with the customers. That's where she bumps into a trio of construction workers - uncertain Shinji (Sosuke Ikematsu), sarcastic Toshiyuki (Ryuhei Matsuda), and homesick Filipino Adres (Paul Magsign). As they both live or work in the Shibuya section of Tokyo, Mika and Shinji find their paths crossing regularly and they start to form a tentative friendship, even if Toshiyuki is the one that asks Mika out.

It's a sign of just how well-sketched the characters in this film are that Mika can talk about how love does not exist on this earth and also say it's stupid and destructive without the viewer saying, hey, take a cynical side here, or feel like she or Ishii is just being antagonistic. Ishii sets actress Shizuka Ishibashi a difficult task in making Mika so generally abrasive without quite pushing the audience away, especially since he doesn't give her cool, snarky lines to lean on. Ishibashi proves good at directing Mika's doubts inward and presenting her as frank and suspicious but not mean, at a certain remove but showing that she's not aloof even if she may seem disengaged.

That she's not obviously the way she presents herself most of the time is something made more pointed in her male counterpart Shinji, who is alternately characterized as silent or needing to fill any time with talk. Fortunately, the jump from one side to the other never seems artificial or arbitrary, indeed, some of the most enjoyable moments come when it feels like Shinji has found a way into a conversation and Sosuke Ikematsu captures that moment of breathless excitement. Just as Ishibashi spends a fair amount of time finding just how relatively surly Mika can be without it pushing the audience away, Ikematsu is toeing the line where Shinji's eagerness can be a legitimate annoyance to Toshiyuki but not the audience. It's especially intriguing to watch how, for much of the movie, Mika's attitude may be rubbing off on Shinji more than the other way around, and the viewer isn't necessarily happy to see Shinji get grumpier, but the performance is walking a nice line between him deliberately trying to adopt her attitude and him letting a little bit of what he may have bottled up out.

As a result, the movie plays as a very specific sort of pessimistic at times, as Mika and Shinji can freely look at Tokyo and say that there's a lot about the place where they live that they don't like without sounding like twenty-somethings trying to act like they're above something popular or cool. No, they've got a very specific sort of self-awareness that often seems hard-won, and it's interesting to see them try to engage or not, frequently getting really frustrated, because as much as the audience can see that they are damaged in ways that would probably make them good for each other, that's a hard way for someone to see themselves. Writer/director Yuya Ishii is pretty good at letting them stumble and potentially hurt each other without really angering the audience; even more so than in his previous films to play Fantasia (Sawako Decides and Mitsuko Delivers), he shows a knack for instilling patience in an audience that might otherwise be inclined to ask what these people think they've got going on that's better. It's especially interesting as the film takes a bit of a risk in introducing characters new to the audience in the form of ex-lovers and family members late in the process. It's a move that can often feel like cheating to force a resolution if the new folks came across as strictly straw men that don't measure up to the main characters or targets Mika & Shinji needed new experiences to attain, but they come with complicated-enough stories of their own to become interesting additions.

Ishii and cinematographer Yoichi Kamakari have a bit of a challenge in shooting Tokyo here in a way that's clearly neither love letter not the opposite, although it's interesting to note that, even as they get out of the crowded areas, empty spaces are usually shrouded in darkness, while Mika's trip home reveals a brightness and openness that is almost completely disconnected from the city - indeed, we don't even see her near a train station; it's almost as if getting out of the city teleports her into a different world. There's a lot of careful decisions that aren't nearly so obvious as the ones in his previous films, and he tones down the obvious eccentricity as well, like he's got a clearer view of youth here compared to the somewhat odd perspectives he specialized in before.

This makes "The Tokyo Night Sky…" less aggressively quirky than what Ishii has done before, more like an earnest North American indie, though it's got a frankness that seems to work better in Japanese films than many other cultures'. It's a plain-spokenness that comes to the fore and sticks in the memory even amid arch language, animated segments, and sometimes random plot developments, giving the film an appealing, memorable sort of honesty.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=31438&reviewer=371
originally posted: 10/09/17 23:20:47
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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