Unusually for a Japanese film, instead of being inspired by manga or a novel, ‘The Tokyo Night Sky Is Always The Densest Shade of Blue’ is inspired by a book of poetry (the collection has yet to be translated). The poet, Tahi Saihate, is only 31 years old but has been publishing prolifically since 2004. Now his work has been adapted by Yuya Ishii (‘The Great Passage’, ‘Sawako Decides’) for a film that marks the writer/director’s return to the indie style that initially launched his career in Japan over ten years ago.
Shinji (Sosuke Ikematsu) is a young misfit who works as a day labourer on the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, given to bursts of verbal diarrhoea that annoys his short-tempered co-worker Tomoyuki (Ryuhei Matsuda). Nonetheless, Shinji, Tomoyuki and two other labourers, the middle-aged Iwashita (Tetsushi Tanaka) and the easy-going Andres (Paul Magsalin), go together to a girlie bar, where the barmaids will socialise and drink with you for money. Blind in one eye and extremely chatty, he accepts the label of being “weird” in order to cover up a deep sense of alienation.
Mika (Shizuka Ishibashi) is a nurse who moonlights as a bartender at the girlie bar. Cool and detached, she ponders the meaninglessness of life as she walks Tokyo’s streets, harbouring disappointment and hurt from a recent breakup and the mysterious death of her mother. Both characters are young and directionless, drowning in bills and struggling with life in a thriving yet oddly impersonal metropolis.
‘The Tokyo Night Sky Is Always The Densest Shade Of Blue’ is heavy on coincidence and moody romanticism, mainly expressed in the poetic musings of the heroine, Mika. This is nicely contrasted by the gritty urban setting of hospitals, seedy bars and construction sites, where the characters’ dreams of love are threatened or extinguished.
The most strident message from director Yuya Ishii is that life in the big city can be a fucking tough and a lonely experience – there is recurring motif of crowds shuffling down the streets with their eyes fixed on mobile phones, to distracted to look up at advertising-laden zeppelins floating in the sky. ‘The Tokyo Night Sky Is Always the Densest Shade of Blue’ seeks to intertwine a web of alienation, missed connections and fleeting glances with striking moments of poetic illumination.
The film seeks to intertwine a web of alienation, missed connections and fleeting glances with striking moments of poetic illumination.
Cinematographer Yoichi Kamakari captures the expansiveness of the city in remarkable detail, with coloured lights sprawling vertically sometimes more than horizontally. Often focusing on the protagonists being “lost in a crowd”, the film blurs the movement of passers-by in a way similar to Christopher Doyle’s camera work in Wong Kar-Wai films. Other cinematic tricks, like the split screen POV of Shinji’s good eye and blind eye, feel clunky, obvious and a lot less interesting.
Unfortunately, the film overdoes it with the quirkiness (a street singer wails the same annoying song about sweat under her armpits and becomes a blunt metaphor for the star-crossed lovers’ struggle) and a love story that goes around in circles instead of developing is tiresome. The dialogue, much of which I assume was lifted directly from the pages of Saihate’s poetry, has an inorganic, patience-testing tone when bounced between the two lead actors. Stuff like: “Just by saying ‘die’ I achieved isolation" and “When you use the word ‘love,’ does your mouth smell of blood?”
At the end of the day, ‘The Tokyo Night Sky Is Always The Densest Shade Of Blue’ feels like an uncomfortable hybrid of an art film and a hip romantic drama aimed at Japanese millennials. While its drama can feel awfully muddled and maudlin, with supporting stories that never earn their screen time, its central narrative manages to balance a mood that is equally fearful and hopeful, suffocating and expansive.
Ideally, this is a film watched while in a depressed or existential mood in a big city. Otherwise, most viewers will find it lyrical but fairly tedious, if not outright yawn-inducing.