After the success of his first film, The Great Passage director Yûya Ishii has been on constant lookout for a new way to challenge himself. His first film secured twelve nominations and six wins at the Japanese Academy Awards, rocketing him to instant superstar status. However, when you achieve success at such an early stage of your career, it’s easy to get locked into a certain kind of typecast.
Unlike The Great Passage—which was based on a novel— Tokyo Night Sky is based on a poetry anthology by acclaimed Japanese poet, Tahi Saihate. By choosing a more looser and ambiguous kind of source material, Ishii has given himself a way to stretch his creative muscles. But any journey into unfamiliar territory is bound to be fraught with pitfalls, and this movie is no exception.
One of the biggest problems with this film is that it suffers from a complete lake of relatable characters— the most noticeable is that of the film’s leading lady. The character of Mika is an absolutely abhorrent one, and is plagued with a personality that leaves its audience wishing for a Meet Joe Black-like car accident sequence to come and sweep her off the screen.
Then there’s the character of Shinji, whose wild neurosis make him the ultimate party buzz-kill. These characters are ones that are best viewed from afar— stuck behind the soft protective barrier of the silver lenticular movie screen. There is not a single character in this movie that you would want coming anywhere near your personal lives, yet miraculously we are forced to somehow care about their lives and circumstances.
The true star of this film has to be the camera itself. The availability of HD cameras has greatly brought down the production costs of films in Japan, making it easier for just about anybody get out there and make a film of their own. This ready availability of HD cams means that a lot of Japanese movies tend to have a very soapy feel to them. Decades of cellophane films have trained audiences to have a pavlovian like resistance to shots with an infinite depth of field. There’s nothing pleasing about a frame that is fully in focus, and Ishii Yûya— the ever-conscious director that he is—has worked tirelessly to push the limits of digital cinema.
Much of this film takes place in the darkest hours of the night, when the city of Tokyo really starts to light up. Ishii does a good job of using the camera to convey the overwhelming strangle-hold that living in a city can have over a person, and his choices of angles, lenses and colors affect the audience on a real visceral level. This style of visual attack helps us to at least empathize with the plights of our main characters—even if we don’t completely like them.
Overall, The Tokyo Night Sky Is Always The Densest Shade of Blue is an interesting piece, but a moody one at that. It is the antithesis of a romantic comedy. Unlike other films that act as loving ode to the cities in which they are shot, this film is an “end of days” scenario for anybody working on the Tokyo Board of Tourism. It suffers from its lack of likable personalities and could really benefit from having an editor with a trigger finger. However the film also thrives in the way that it comments about the social and economic pressures that come with moving to a big city. It’s an entirely watchable piece of Japanese cinema, and though It may not be the best film in Ishii’s ever-growing film catalog, it’s still one that merits attention.