Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Japan Cuts ’17: Tokyo Night Sky is Always the Densest Shade of Blue

Compared to the Beijing Olympics and the Qatar World Cup, construction for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics has been a model of safety and integrity. Granted, one of socially awkward Shinji’s few friends wrecks his back on the job, but he is still alive to get depressed over it. Another will in fact drop dead, but that is a freak, unrelated event. Yet, it will be an unlikely catalyst for him to cross paths with the emotionally damaged Mika again in Yuya Ishii’s Tokyo Night Sky is Always the Densest Shade of Blue (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film in New York.

Shibuya and Shinjuku always look like Times Square on steroids in the movies. They are precisely the sort of districts Mika and Shinji can’t stand, but somehow, they frequently find themselves there. When they do, they often encounter each other, but they are ill-equipped for romance. Legally blind in one eye, Shinji is deeply insecure, which he tries to compensate for through manic, almost Tourette-like outbursts. Mika is still reeling from her mother’s apparent suicide and resentful of the former lover who dumped her, but keeps calling to profess his love.

Her work does not help either. She is an underpaid nurse by day, who moonlights at a hostess bar. When Shinji brings his construction friends for a drink one night, Mika rather perversely agrees to see his friend Toshiyuki instead, but it will not last. Despite her standoffishness and frequently lashing out, Shinji falls for Mika as their paths continue to intersect.

Tokyo Night Sky is inspired by and derived from the poetry of Tahi Saihate, which can be heard during Mika’s interior monologues and in snippets of conversation. It sounds precious and/or pretentious, but Ishii integrates her verse surprisingly smoothly. Of course, this is hardly a chatty film in the first place. Mika and Shinji are profoundly lonely and alienated, but Ishii does not wallow in their misery. In fact, their small breakthroughs here and there are arrestingly beautiful.

Relative newcomer Shizuka Ishibashi is absolutely stunning as Mika, like a lightning bolt out of the clear blue sky. She makes us feel acute sympathy, maddening frustration, and everything in between. Likewise, Sosuke Ikematsu turns on a dime from likable to pitiable, to just plain uncomfortable and then back again as Shinji. It is their film by a country mile, but it is still hard to shake of the dignity with which Tetsushi Tanaka portrays broken down day laborer Iwashita, as he endures the indignities of life.

Ishibashi and Ikematsu’s performances are remarkably assured and well-calibrated, but the evocative, twilight cinematography of Yoichi Kamakari is just as important, or perhaps even more so, to the film’s delicately bittersweet vibe. It is indeed poetic, visually and dramatically. Highly recommended for discerning viewers, Tokyo Night Sky is Always the Densest Shade of Blue screens this Friday (7/14) at the Japan Society, as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.