Hiroshi Ishikawa has a long career in filmmaking but only has a few features credits to his name. His work as a director of TV commercials and music videos stands in stark contrast to the slow moving dramas he writes and directs where little is said out loud and the audience is expected to tease out what is going on from the accretion of detail. From his debut feature Tokyo.Sora to his most recent film, Petal Dance (2013), the world of characters inhabit is a very lonely place.
The story of Tokyo.Sora is typically slight, an observation of the daily lives of six women in present-day Tokyo which tells the much larger story of disconnection felt by people living in urban environments. There is one, a student from Taiwan, who turns to nude modelling at an art school to pay school fees. She has a crush on a Japanese guy who uses the same laundry she does. One of the artists (Ayano Nakamura) who draws the Taiwanese girl is pursued by a classmate but is uncertain about him. There is Yoko (Yuka Itaya), a woman who aspires to be a writer but has to work as a hostess in a bar. She pours drinks for salarymen alongside Yuki (Haruka Igawa) who also works as a waitress in her daytime hours. The six women are in their twenties and, while they live in the bustling metropolis of Tokyo and perform jobs that involve human contact, they are all very much alone and possibly sliding into depression. We can intuit this from the way Ishikawa shows everything as a collection of small occurrences that overlap, painting a bleak picture of isolation and longing for contact.
Observing the circumstances of the women and the way they are framed by Ishikawa, one can see why they may feel dissonance and dislocation from others and their environments. It is then possible to understand their dissatisfaction with life. The aspiring actress is almost always on screen by herself and is given instructions on how to act at auditions by someone off-screen but she seems lost and looks uncomfortable. When talking to a casting director she tells him how she has been living alone for five years. Her cramped apartment has thin walls so she can hear her neighbour having conversations but doesn’t get involved. None of these girls seems to have friends and, while romance may hover at the edges of their lives, they don’t know how to grasp it. The girl from Taiwan buys a similar book to the guy in her laundrette, yet while he starts a conversation, she cannot finish it to her satisfaction and merely smiles, the language barrier proving a tough challenge. The artist endures a kissing session with her classmate where bodies are misaligned and passion is broken off. Only the girl from Taiwan attempts to contact her family, a short exchange which she gives up on. It is a bleak testament of the social awkwardness of the girls but other characters that seem well-adjusted are just as unmoored from others.
Ishikawa frames his characters in an isolated manner. The bar where Yoko works is a haven for lonely men and Ishikawa singles out each customer and hostess in close-up so their partners for the night are partially cut off by the frame with their voices coming from off-screen. Ishikawa has a way of shooting conversations so that two people won’t be on screen together for long. He deploys a number of simple editing and camera techniques such as shot-reverse-shot and simply having actors wander in and out of frame while they talk instead of having people face each other to accentuate the lack of direct contact. It happens constantly throughout the film.
This is a story about the relentless isolation felt by six women and it is told slowly as Ishikawa uses repetition to make the point. A downside to this style of filmmaking is that it can feel dull and overdone for those not willing to engage with each scene or look for signs and symbolism.
The first twenty minutes or so of the film is near-dialogue free and spent watching everyday routines, such as washing hands, going to Japanese language classes, heading to auditions and so forth. The action doesn’t get much more exciting up until the halfway point and dialogue still remains sparse. These scenes link together to show the downward spirals of the characters as the banality of their lives and their inability to make connections begins to make life unbearable. Soon, individual scenes, sequences and the lives of the characters blur into a series of soft-horror stories as emotional zombies wander samey urban spaces. They are poster children for atomised living.
It is tempting to say that, if the audience finds watching it soporific, just imagine what the characters must feel, but that is to be flippant. Making a film full of mundane moments might put off some audiences but this is slow cinema so stick with it and you can see an intricate picture of loneliness. The emotions actually burn a hole in the screen for anyone who has lived like this. Not everyone will find it rewarding viewing and Ishikawa does fall on the wrong side of ponderousness on a number of occasions. Ideas could have been made clearer and quicker without the audience needing to be bashed over the head with near-identical scenes so often. Editing can seem off at times and the pacing does feel turgid, especially in the first half.
Fortunately, there is psychological growth and hope as these characters make connections, their worlds gradually open up as they come into contact with each other under the Tokyo sky. Life comes into scenes as the characters spark with new people, the promise of new connections, and fresh ways of approaching life. No man is an island, as the metaphysical poet John Donne once wrote and the waters of isolation do promise to clear up.