Compilations can be a rigorously mixed bag. What happens more often than not, there’s usually a single strong piece in the bunch, while the other additions feel a bit like creative ‘leftovers.’ I think this happens because individual stories get crafted by individual storytellers, and each of these ‘weavers of dreams’ has differing narrative gifts, stylistic approaches, and moral considerations that play into how effectively any account unfolds. So long as they gravitate very closely to some central thread, it’s usually a solid experience. To its credit, TOKYO NOIR works well, though I’ll admit having some lesser interest in one out of three of the tales.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and characters. If you’re the kind of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last two paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
TOKYO NOIR is a compilation of three separate stories involving three very different women. What unites them to a certain degree is how their established or newfound sexuality (or sexual awakening, in some cases) forces them to re-examine their role in their respective microcosms of a larger world around them. Sex, after all, may not define who they are as individuals; still, it’s the most uniquely identifiable characteristic out there. In many ways, sexual expression relates very closely to how we view our various roles in life, and that’s core to understanding their respective trials and tribulations. I’ll surmise each of these individually, and I’ll sum up my grade in parenthesis.
“Birthday” tells the story of Mari (played by Takami Yoshimoto). She’s an overworked and unappreciated account executive in what appears to be an internet development and advertising firm (it’s never perfectly spelled out). With each passing year, she’s growing a little bit older, and she lives out her meager life mostly recounting the various failures of each successive birthday. For example, her father left on her 7th birthday; her cat passed away on another. However, a chance encounter with a likeable stylist who treats her to a dramatic makeover forces her to embrace more provocative and more impetuous personal choices, and she discovers a dramatic sexual awakening that pokes and prods her to see newfound value in what she offers to men. Opening TOKYO NOIR with this story was brilliant because, in my estimation, this is the most complete and relatable storyline – no one likes feeling the part of the outcast – and the sex is played out realistically for the virginal Mari who’s only just finding her way in life. (4 out of 5 stars)
“Girls Life” tells the story of Miyuki (Aimi Nakamura), who works part-time in a massage parlor (where everything’s not all rubs and oils). Recently dumped by her boyfriend Tomoya, she’s begun toying with decidedly amping up her own sexual appetite, seemingly fleeting from one chance encounter to the next, even at the risk of alienating her friends. However, when Tomoya decides to re-insert himself in her life, Miyuki is forced to confront why she does what she does, and the betrayal by her lover and a school friend are near to the heart of her personal struggles. Sadly, this one feels a bit incomplete – almost like there may’ve been more to the story – but it comes together affably enough in the final act. (3 out of 5 stars)
“Night Lovers” tells the story of two women named Nao (Kimika Yoshino & Aya Seki). The first Nao is distraught when her boyfriend disappears (due to a work matter), so she begins a journey back through places they visited, hoping to stumble across him. Instead, she discovers the second Nao, a professional ‘lover’ who eventually offers her the chance to experience life on the other side of the tracks. While being the most ambitious of the compilation (and certainly boasting the most stimulating idea), it’s also the most visually frustrating; directing duties were split between Masato Ishioka and Naoto Kumazawa, and perhaps that’s why it seems awfully ‘spaced out’ with plenty of unnecessary pauses and long takes. There’s very little ‘sex’ much less ‘intimacy’ to the story, and, instead, audiences are treated to sequences of one girl playing with her cellphone while another surfs the internet. It isn’t entirely effective; it’s just WAY overlong – at over an hour screen-time, there’s debatably enough substance to fill thirty minutes at best. (2 out of 5 stars)
The central theme of how intimacy shapes the way we live remains constant, but otherwise TOKYO NOIR is a mixed bag exercise in effective storytelling. Solid performances aren’t enough to elevate the 2nd and 3rd pieces, but the ladies are commended – along with the creative folks – for giving it an honest go-round.
TOKYO NOIR (2004) is produced by GAGA, Gold View Company LTD., KSS, and Nippon Shuppan Hanbai (Nippan) K.K. DVD distribution is being handled through MVD Entertainment Group. For those needing it spelled out perfectly, this is a Japanese spoken language release with English subtitles available. As for the technical specifications, it all looks and sounds mostly solid; there’s some noticeable graininess in a few sequences, but it never distracts from the viewing experience. As is often the case with these older releases finding distribution on American shores, there are no special features on the disc.
RECOMMENDED. These are three film shorts – all of them character studies at differing levels of intensity – so I’m comfortable admitting in advance that these may not be for everyone. “Birthday” was the strongest of the three, examining how a young urban professional with a troubled past finds some balance in her life with something so simple as ‘makeovers’ that lead to sex. “Girl’s Life” plumbs the emotional after-effects of one girl’s work in the massage parlor business. Lastly, “Night Lovers” follows two very different women with the same name who can only find personal happiness when they agree to swap places for an evening. The ‘noir’ elements are all relatively light here mostly because these stories are shorts – there isn’t enough time to legitimately develop these characters beyond their brief cinematic portraits – but there’s something worth appreciating in the attempt.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at MVD Entertainment Group provided me with a DVD copy of TOKYO NOIR by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.