Maps of the Sounds of Tokyo

This 2009 Spanish film starts out very promising and so is all the more disappointing when it doesn’t fulfill its promise. Watching the first third of it I became deeply aware that the way a film is shot and edited, the language of film-making, has a distinctive national accent. I’m used to the flavor of Japanese films and American films set in Japan. I think Map of the Sounds of Tokyo is the first European film about Japan I’ve seen. The result? Tokyo looks very much like Paris in some 1960s film noir flick. The cinematographer focuses on bridges arching over dark rivers, on cold, colorless modern buildings, and on scenes of isolation and emptiness. It is the antithesis of the usual shots of Tokyo’s assault on the senses–a great look beyond the cliches.

The sound editing is likewise distinctive, as the title leads you to believe. In one of the few air shots where the camera pulls back to provide a typical night scene of the Tokyo tangle of freeways, you hear nothing but the sound of cicadas. From a distance, we are merely insects in the hive.

The story begins well, focusing on a wealthy Japanese business man who learns of his daughter’s suicide. He cannot stand the thought of her foreign lover being alive while his daughter is dead so he has his assistant hire a hit. The killer is a young woman, Ryu (Rinko Kikuchi) who works at the fish market, so that she does not have to think too much. She goes to check out her mark, David (Sergi Lopez), a wine merchant. He asks her to try a wine and she finds him disarming, in both senses. This is the point that the movie dies for me because it turns into a silly romance. If it had ended the way that all French noir movies end (everybody dies), then the last act would have had tension and poignancy.

I’m surprised to discover that Map of the Sounds of Tokyo was both written and directed by a woman, Isabel Coixet because the third act devolves into western male fantasy. The sacrifice is completely on the women’s side in this film. The men get life, guilt-free sex, and melancholy nostalgia. True, we foreigners look back fondly on our years in Japan and remember how it changed us forever and still infuses our life with bittersweet memories…but in a movie, it’s a cheap ending.

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