To Tokyo (UK, 2018)

British director Caspar Seale Jones and his team have made an impressive-looking debut that uses distinctly different landscapes to create a visually unique take on a familiar tale of a young woman facing past traumas and the monsters in her life.

The young woman haunted by her background is Alice (model Florence Kosky making her acting debut), a disturbed waif who has fled her family in Britain to lay low in a remote Japanese village. With bags under her eyes and a febrile and tremulous physicality, Alice hides in her hotel room but is forced to leave when her half-sister Zoe (Emily Seale-Jones) arrives and informs her that her mother is dying. Zoe offers to escort Alice back home but there is a deadline of four nights before she’s out on the next flight from Tokyo. With her mother on the verge of death, Alice decides to head to Tokyo. 

The source of Alice’s trauma defines the narrative which splits itself between her perspective and Zoe’s to drip-feed a sordid history. This method avoids directly and clumsily detailing the pathology behind Alice’s broken behavior and is to the film’s advantage as it teases out the trauma linked to an abusive step-father in rather artfully shot scenes interspersed in the narrative that intrigue rather than belabor the backstory. It grows into harrowing stuff to explain why Alice is broken as past and present bleed into each other. More artful is the way that the film departs from any sense of reality as the monster enters the narrative.

The monster itself is a creepy lanky skull-faced figure whose silhouette looms ominously around scenes as it pursues Alice. If this is based on some sort of yokai, it’s not a well-known one and its purpose is obscure which allows for story twists, not least its ability to drag Alice down a veritable rabbit hole into a netherworld.

In these moments, To Tokyo becomes a disorientating experience open to interpretation as it erodes the border between reality and the mental head-space of Alice. Her journey to the city is impinged by the monster, creating a surreal left turn into a spectacular landscape as it abducts Alice to a place where a dream logic holds sway. She wanders across plateaus and through caves (locations in South Africa) to confront what ails her mind before emerging to the eerily empty cityscape of night-time Tokyo where humans do much worse things to each other, something Alice has experience with already but is now better able to cope with.

The journey Alice goes on is slight in narrative terms and may strain credulity as it aims for beauty and mysteriousness but graceful editing holds everything together by emphasizing the dreamy/nightmare reality Alice slips between. The sparkling sheen of the cinematography and stunning locations make a big visual impact while haunting music from Trevor Jones sounds like something Kenji Kawai might compose for one of Mamoru Oshii’s films, with its atmospheric chants making for a particularly suitable accompaniment for Alice’s sojourns in spirit land.