a page of madness

film writing by nicholas vroman

REVIEW: Tokyo Drifter

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トーキョードリフター (Tokyo Dorifuta)Released: 2011

Tetsuaki Matsue

Kenta Maeda

Running time: 72 min.

Reviewed by Nicholas Vroman

“Tokyo Drifter” begins on a black screen with the briefest of announcements. “Latest news on the tsunami situation…” An ad jingle comes up alternating with street noise. A murky shot of a Japanese flag in the darkness gives way to an empty office building with all the lights on. A quick cut to black. A building with a sign – Olympus goes out of focus. Cut to black A long shot of a dark building flashing a couple lights. A train station’s light illuminates many commuters who once they exit find the exterior plunged into darkness. A darkened Toyota sign foregrounds a ribbon of red car taillights snaking away into the night.

The camera zooms in on a traffic island, a handful of folks bustling by, cars zipping by. The auto focus makes the image snap in and out of focus. The camera shakes as singer songwriter, Kenta Maeno, far away unpacks his guitar and begins singing.

The offhand editing is anything but. The shaky and soft images specifically reference the iconic images of the earthquake and tsunami of 3.11 – those awesome and horrifying lo-fi images taken from ketais and digital cameras. These are the aesthetic tools and motifs that make up Tetsue Matsuaki’s off-kilter love letter to Tokyo and the darkness it was thrust into after the great Tohoku earthquake. For months after the earthquake, businesses and public offices turned off neon lights and signs. Streetlights were turned off. Tokyo, famous for its illuminated nightscape was an eerily changed city.

A couple of years ago, Matsuaki and Maeno made the indie sensation, “Live Tape” – a single shot feature that followed Maeno singing and improvising on a long walk through Kichijoji, a hip neighborhood in western Tokyo. He revisits a similar trope in “Tokyo Drifter” with Maeno singing an album’s worth of material over one rainy night, this time in different neighborhoods around Tokyo. The new film, however, finds the director and his singing muse much more focused, even as Maeno drifts around different sites on his motorcycle a couple months after the disaster.

Maeno’s first song, sung on a dimly lit traffic island with passersby consciously ignoring him builds images of people traveling via a night bus – young lovers and old men, rain and snow and lonely stations. The bittersweet ideas of drifting travelers filled with hopes and broken dreams set the stage for Maeno’s own seemingly aimless travels through the darkened quarters of the city he both loves, but has a fair share of criticism for.

Next we see him in Ginza, in a dark alley, a Louis Vuitton store’s sign casting a ghostly glow in the background. He signs a questioning love song…

A woman’s friendship’s an enigma
A woman’s friendship’s what I need

… followed up with another song – a slacker’s remembrance of a sticky past summer. He hits the road singing:

Blue sky and the sun are calling
… these days of youth
Off we go staying young and fearless
Off we go on a journey
through these days of youth
When in tears of in joy
We’ll stay friends as we journey on

We next find him sitting in front of a closed hair salon in Meidaimae, another hip area on the west side of town, singing a sad and beautiful song suggesting that the words love and loneliness are words that he longs to be gone. Maeno is a romantic at heart. He gets up and wanders down a dark shotnegai, again singing a reminiscence of a hot summer. Next we see him in front an anonymous apartment, still in darkness, where he sings another bittersweet love song. Through these songs he speaks of hot unbearable days, cockroaches and generally nasty stuff with a longing and appreciation for what life in Tokyo is really about.

Next we find him in Shibuya where he delivers a wickedly funny song of pure self-revulsion, “Fuck Me.” He wanders toward the famous crossing singing a set of songs loosely built around wistful impressions and celebrations of rainy nights and days, 120-yen coffee and the crass consumption that’s the essential metaphor for life in Tokyo. When he reaches the crossing the huge video monitors, neon lights and signs that usually keep the place in constant daylight are off. The Shibuya crossing is rarely seen like this.

He hits the road as the rain grows stronger singing the AKB 48 hit of last spring, “Heavy Rotation.”

I want you
I need you
I love you
My mind…
Love’s on heavy rotation
Heavy rotation

Next he’s in front of a convenience store, its sign off. He’s silhouetted only by the interior neon. The rain pours down as he sings a couple more songs – one about the impossibility of knowing others’ lives and the other a tortured love song to Tokyo itself.

This worn down magnificent city
Dreams, hope and passion
Pathetic, but it’s
Breaking up with your
First meeting you
I realized that I loved this city
This worn down city of youth
The lights go down
The young move out

The final scene finds Maeno at dawn on a dike by a river, the city in the background. He sings a rather heroic song binding ideas of the past and future, looking to “the new morning sunrise.” He tosses his pick away as the camera goes into a close up of his dirty fingers playing a circle of fifths. A blackout as the music continues and a studio mixed band fills in the final “Tokyo Drifter’ song (not the Hajime Kaburagi version). Shots of Maeno on his motorcycle continuing his journey give way to the credits.

“Tokyo Drifter,” Tetsuaki and Maeno’s paean to the darkness, to Tokyo as physical presence – in all it’s filth and glory – and a state of mind, boldly takes the defining national tragedy of 2011 and turns it on its head, finding a bit of light and hope from it all. As he told me, “The Tokyo now and the Tokyo then is different. In May everyone was on edge. They didn’t know what was happening. I prefer Tokyo then in May, rather than the Tokyo we’re in now.”

Originally published on J-Film Pow-Wow, Monday, January 16, 2012


Written by Nicholas Vroman

January 22, 2012 at 10:49 pm

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