In 2010 Ishii Yuya entered the international scene with a bang when his first commercial feature, Sawaka Decides. Besides being chosen for the international Film Festival in Berlin, it also won the Best Feature Film at Montreal’s Fantasia Film Fest and made Ishii the youngest winner of the Blue Ribbon for Best Director in Japan. Three years later, his talent was confirmed when The Great Passage, a narrative based on Shion Miura’s best-selling novel, won the awards for Best Picture and Best Director on the Japanese Academy awards.
Yuya Ishii’s lastest cinematographical product is not based on a novel like The Great Passage was, but on a poetry collection by Tahi Saihate. Much like Machi Tawara’s Salad anniversary, this poetry collection was an immediate success, selling a record amount of 27,000 copies. By using easy and familiar language, Tahi Saihate was able to give poetic expression to the shared social melancholy and the unspoken hope still present in society. Is Ishii Yuya able to translate the alienation, melancholy and the sparks hope present in Tahi Saihate’s words, while remaining true to poetic nature of the source material?
Tokyo 2017. One night, hospital nurse Mika (Shizuka Ishibashi), who also moonlights as an bar-entertainer at a girls bar, lays eyes on Shinji (Sosuke Ikematsu), an outcast – blind on one eye – working as a temporary worker on various construction sites for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. While nothing more than eye-contact is exchanged, each going their own way again in the big metropolis of Tokyo, Shinji remains on Mika’s mind.
At a later time, Shinji invites his three co-workers, the easy-going Filipino Andres (Paul Magsalin), who misses the wife and child he left home, the middle-aged Iwashita (Tetsushi Tanaka), who has a broken back from years of manual labor, and the stoic Tomoyuki (Ryuhei Matsuda) to a girls bar. Andres, for obvious marital reasons, declines. By mere chance, Shinji lies eyes on Mika once again – a second encounter that won’t be their last.
The narrative of The Tokyo Night Sky is Always the Densest Shade of Blue focuses on the subjective positions of Shinji and Mika – freely switching between their viewpoints – within Tokyo, a vast metropolitan space where life feels pointless, subjectivity isolated and buried beneath the intermingling streams of the masses, and meetings, reduced to the imaginary exchange of empty words, remain fleeting. These subjective positions – Mika and Shinji being lonesome subjects, sensible paint the general atmosphere of cultural discontent characterizing Tokyo and the subjective alienation peculiar to modern society (narra-note 1).
Despite the focus on two characters, the subjective perspective of Mika takes preference in the beginning of the narrative, as her inner thoughts are explicitly vocalized for the spectator. While these poetic thoughts give Mika a certain ungraspable subjective depth – enabling the spectator to share her subjective view on the narrative space, her subjectivity is also revealed as solely a private matter and as effaced in the middle of the masses – “we’re all the same” (Narra-note 2, Narra-note 3). It is rather disappointing to realize that these externalized thoughts, poetically framing the rhythms of daily life are not used consequently by Yuya Ishii throughout the entire narrative. Mika, obsessed with the aspect of death, revels herself in her isolation and her feeling of being abandoned. Even if she wants to share affection, she, as subject, reveals that it is often easier to swim in the certainty of having being abandoned than to invest in a love-situation where the confrontation with loss remains an ever present danger. Furthermore, the narrative implies how a traumatic past can exert influence on one’s current emotional functioning, problematizing love as such and the attachment that goes with it (character-note 1; cine-note 1).
Ultimately, the narrative shows that, even if subjectivity is endangered by the metropolitan masses, it is still possible for two subjects, how psychologically “malfunctioning” they may be, to actually meet each other (narra-note 4). And while Mika and Shinji’s subjective meeting is made cinematographically explicit, together with images that symbolizes hope in the dreariness of Tokyo’s atmosphere, this meeting lacks the emotional impact it should have had (narra-note 5).
The cinematography of The Tokyo Night sky is always the densest shade of blue has a more expressive feel to it, using a variety of techniques (cine-note 2). And while this can be refreshing, framing things in an inventive way, often underlining the beauty of movement, it also leads, especially in the narrative’s beginnings, to some odd and unnecessary cinematographical decorations (cine-note 3). Another aspect that feels out of place in the beginning of the narrative are those scenes of Mika that are composed with a quick succession of a mix of static and dynamic temporally shorter shots. While these scenes are technically sound, they are not in accordance with the overall pace of the narrative. Luckily for the spectator, the greater part of the narrative is framed with a more straightforward cinematography, opting for more lengthy shots, often dynamically moving vertically and horizontally over the cinematographical plane.
The Tokyo Night Sky is Always the Densest Shade of Blue is a socially relevant narrative, tackling the effects of alienation, the miscommunication between subjects and the overall diminishing importance of subjectivity in the social field, that ultimately suffers from its cinematographical inconsistency. Despite the fact that Ishii is able to find the poetic vibe he is looking for, his decorations often fail to rhyme with the narrative as a whole. But even if the narrative is poetically inconsistent on a cinematographical level, there is still a lot to like about the lyricism of speech and the eloquence by which two lost souls are able to find each other as subject.
Character-note 1: Shinji for that matter revels itself in his outcast position, either bursting into talkative overdrive or retreating into a state of protective silence.
Narra-note 1: Mika’s externalized thoughts about disappearing as subject in the masses of Tokyo and the non-existence of love on this planet, further underlines the lonesomeness she experiences.
Narra-note 2: The side story of the female singer is precisely about being noticed as a subject in a metropolis where the interest in subjectivity is fading. The funny thing is that the lyrics of her song are precisely about the fact that we’re all the same, on the streets we are but fleeting images for each other.
Narra-note 3: When Mika, while working in the girls bar, gives her phone number to Tomoyuki, this should be read as an acceptation of the object she then is in the eyes of Tomoyuki. Earlier in the narrative, Mika was already positioned as an object to have sex with by some men she was going out with.
Narra-note 4: They also meet beyond the fundamental understanding that exists between subjects. In this respect, it is interesting to note that the greater part of the narrative is characterized by empty speech and miscommunication. The miscommunication is most evident in the riverside scene with Mika and her ex-boyfriend. While Mika speaks, he does not listen. In the end, he says that she must be comfortable if she talks so much, but, in truth, the contents of her speech reveals the opposite.
Narra-note 5: Shinji’s “gomen” is the start of him placing his subjectivity in his speech with respect to mika. Mika’s subjective approach is framed in two times. The first time is when she invites Shinji in her apartment, a second time is one she says “arigatou” to Shinji.
Cine-note 1: In the scene where Mika’s thoughts on love are explicated, karaoke is sung. The song in question is AKB48’s koi suru Fortune cookie, a song about love. The lyrics that are sung are:
Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!
カモン カモン カモン カモン ベイビー
Because there are many much cuter girls all around me
You wouldn’t notice this plain flower
Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!
While casually listening to the cafeteria music,
I start tapping my feet to the beat
without even realizing it
I can’t stop, how I’m feeling
Come on come on come on come on, baby
tell me my fortune!
Love Fortune Cookie!
The future ain’t that bad
Cine-note 2: Dissolve and zoom-ins are often used. Animation sequences are integrated. The blindness of Shinji is represented through POV shots, by only showing half of the image. Furthermore some avant-garde influences can to be noted, e.g. jump cuts, slow-motion, and the use of depth of field.
Cine-note 3: The more straightforward cinematography underlines how unnecessary some more extravagant choices in the beginning were, choices that added next to nothing to the experience of the narrative. A more subtle use of experimental decorations, as noted in the second part of the narrative is preferable.