If you ask me about the pinnacle of Japanese drama cinema there is only one name that withstands all criticism: Hiroshi Ishikawa. Sadly his work is terribly under-appreciated (or just plain unknown), even amongst fans of Japanese cinema. What better reason to review his first film and unmistakable stronghold of my personal top 10 list. A film that threw me off balance the first time I watched it and still holds that same power almost 10 years later.
Ishikawa is a director with a background in shooting commercials, which is pretty funny considering the fact that his films are amongst the most subtle, stilted and tender dramas you could ever imagine. There is no flash, no hype, no trickery, just staggeringly convincing characters in a very realistic slice of life setup. If anything, the man's film teach you a thing or two about reigning preconceptions of a director's background, especially when said director comes from a more commercially-oriented industry.
I still find it somewhat awkward to explain to people that Tokyo.sora is the one film that probably has the biggest emotional impact on me. After all, Ishikawa's film is about six women living in modern-day Tokyo, hardly something I can actively relate to as a 30-year old guy living in Belgium. But underneath the surface of Tokyo.sora lie more universal themes, exploring social contact, solitude and just about everything that lies in between.
Tokyo.sora's women are fragile yet sturdy characters who are all on the verge of a blossoming relationship (some romances, some friendships). Making contact or truly opening up to other people isn't quite that easy for them though, so they all struggle along, each of them dealing with the hurdles that are thrown at them in their own, personal way. There is no real story and there are no real dramatic events propelling this film forward (except maybe one, and even that is handled in a very down-played manner), just the intimate stories of these six women.
Even though Tokyo.sora is pretty sober, it's still a very attractive and beautiful film to behold. Ishikawa chose his color palette very carefully, with many blues and grays dominating the screen. The framing is delicate and precise, the camera work accurate and observing. Ishikawa often refrains from looking at his subjects directly, instead he picks mirror reflections or positions his camera out of view from the characters. This really heightens the feeling you're looking in on the lives of the characters rather than watching scripted scenes, even though there is always a clear level of styling present.
The music is handled by Yoko Kanno (anime scoring legend) and while I'm not a big fan of her anime work, she provides a wonderful, touching and emotional score here. Maybe not the most original of scores (think piano tunes and soft-voiced vocal tracks) but definitely a valuable asset that enhances the soft and drifting atmosphere of the film, easing you into a warm state of trance.
The acting too is simply superb. None of the actresses are particularly popular or well-known, but they all possess a natural flair that makes it that much easier to feel along with their characters. This being a Japanese drama you have to be able to cope with the typically stilted and introverted way of acting, though for me this only makes things better (and it's actually quite in line with the themes of Tokyo.sora).
Don't expect too much in the way of story or dramatic climaxes. Everything about this film is minimal, from cinematography to scoring to character development. Sure the women change throughout the course of the film, just not in any major, life-altering ways but in a more natural, realistic way. Small events, meetings or simple gestures are the highlights of this film, slowly influencing the lives these women are leading. This being a film about six women whose lives aren't necessarily linked together in any way, the structure can be seemingly random and uneven. At the same time, by jumping between the different stories even within scenes you get some very nice contradictions and a worthwhile mix of emotions. While I've seen some people critique this way of mixing the different stories, I actually believe it helps the realistic character of the film.
Ultimately this is a film about the friction between social contact and solitude. Sometimes contact with others is what you crave and loneliness can be a painful sore. At other times loneliness is liberating and social contact can be a real drag. Both elements fulfill an important function in our lives, even though there are moments when they are difficult to cope with. So even though I'm not female and I don't live in Tokyo, these themes are still pretty relevant to me, pulling me in like no other film can.
If you're interested in Japanese drama Tokyo.sora might not be the best entry level film. The pacing is incredibly slow, the acting particularly introverted and the film itself remarkably uneventful. And yet, seeing these women go through their lives, often incapable to make seemingly easy decisions but always finding the strength to pick up their lives and move on, this film emits such strong, powerful and delicate emotions that it easily surpasses its peers. As far as realistic drama goes, this is as close to perfection as I've ever seen. If you're into Japanese dramas and you haven't seen this yet, there is no better film I could recommend.