Tokyo—it is the hip place for Americans to go to be moody and depressed. Unlike Bill Murray in Lost in Translation, Sebastian the Brooklyn businessman appreciates Japanese culture, both high and pop. It would just be nice if he had someone to share it with. Claire the freelance photographer might be a good candidate, but like him, she seems to carry a deep sadness on her shoulders in Richard Shepard’s short film Tokyo Project (trailer here), which premieres this Saturday night on HBO.
We quickly glean from the voice messages Sebastian leaves, his wife will not be joining him on this trip, due to an unspoken tragedy she has yet to allow herself to recover from. As a result, Sebastian’s tour of Shinjuku sake bars and ramen restaurants takes on a melancholy vibe. The huge neon signs and chaotic Shibuya scramble crossing could dwarf any man, but he looks especially small. Still, he cannot help noticing Claire, another American staying at his hotel, with whom he has a series of near-encounters.
At first, she discourages his advances, but the frequency of their paths crossing wears down her reluctance. Half-jokingly, she claims to be a ghost, but that could actually be true metaphorically. Regardless, finding solace in each other’s arms might not be as simple as viewers might like to think.
If only a fraction of HBO’s subscribers watch Shepard’s film, it will still greatly boost Tokyo tourism, no matter how they feel about Project as a work of short cinema. Cinematographer Giles Nuttgens (whose work includes Hell or High Water) feasts on the mega-cityscape. Sometimes he makes the city feel warm and sometimes cool, but it is always visually arresting.
Tokyo Project also happens to be a surprisingly touching narrative drama. Yes, Lena Dunham signed on as an executive producer, but do not hold that against it. Both Ebon Moss-Bachrach (co-star of Dunham’s Girls and the radically different Punisher coming from Netflix) and Elisabeth Moss convey a powerful sense of their characters’ pain and regret, but they do so with quiet restraint. Shusaku Kakizawa gives surprising depth and presence to the potentially thankless helper role of Sebastian’s translator Shu, which fortunately establishes at least a bit of Japanese representation in a film set in Japan.