‘Map of the Sounds of Tokyo’: Pretty to Look At

Visual style trumps all in Isabel Coixet’s Map of the Sounds of Tokyo: the colors are so bright, the framings so perfect, the close-ups so exquisite that it often seems more like a commercial for high-end perfume or jewelry than a feature film set in present-day Tokyo. It would serve equally well as a “Visit Tokyo” promotion for television, presenting as it does a glittering city populated by beautiful people where even fish guts look enticing. There’s a price to be paid for creating such artificial beauty, however: the intrusion of anything resembling the real world would be a violation of Coixet’s impeccably crafted cinematic universe.

There’s nothing wrong with films which create their own artificial world: in fact it’s one of the things which the medium does best. If Map of the Sounds of Tokyo were content to remain within its own imaginary universe, the result might have been a stunning art house film, one which would fail in the multiplexes but would be cherished by lovers of cinematic art. Unfortunately Coixet not only allows but forces the real world, cinematically speaking, to violate her beautifully artificial world and the result is less than satisfying. The combination of a highly aesthetic, even mannered, cinematic style with genre elements including an assassination plot and forbidden relations in a love hotel results in a film which fails to succeed on any terms.

The opening scene provides a good example of opportunities lost. The camera cranes over the almost-nude body of a beautiful woman adorned with sushi, pulling back a bit to reveal a flock of black-suited men laughing and drinking as they reach out with chopsticks to sample her offerings. The camera pulls back further to reveal two Japanese among the largely Western customers: the grey-haired Nagara (Takeo Nakahara) and his much younger assistant Ishida (Hideo Sakaki). Nagara is disgusted by the whole enterprise (“Do we really have to do this? Eat hot sushi off a woman’s navel?”) but Ishida assures him that for business purposes they should play along. Then a phone call, a few words whispered in Nagara’s ear, and the self-contained businessman erupts in rage, screaming and smashing the table.

The news? His daughter is dead. Although shot objectively the scene temporarily puts us inside Nagara’s head by shifting to slow motion and accompanying his cries with a soundtrack of abstract electronic sounds and a drum beat. Meanwhile, the other guests entirely misunderstand and take his outburst as an invitation to start a food fight, their juvenile stupidity appearing almost obscene in the presence of his all-consuming grief.

This scene has achieved notoriety for its portrayal of nyotaimori and has contributed to misunderstanding of this practice. Eating sushi off the body of a naked woman is not an ancient Japanese tradition but more of a recently-invented “happening” associated with promotions at trendy bars and yakuza parties, and thus not anything a respectable business would be likely to sponsor in order to gain face with potential associates. Setting that objection aside, the cinematography in this scene is exquisite, the dialogue pitch-perfect, the acting superb and the thematic possibilities almost endless.

The exploitation of women? The need to violate your own principles in pursuit of a goal? A father’s overwhelming grief at the loss his child? Arrogance towards and misunderstanding of another culture? They’re all there in the first three-minutes, yet all are essentially abandoned for a much less interesting and wholly unbelievable story involving the world’s least convincing assassin.

The story of Map of the Sounds of Tokyo is told largely through narration by an unnamed sound engineer (Min Tanaka) obsessed with a beautiful young woman named Ryu (Rinko Kikuchi). This film relies so much on telling rather than showing that it soon starts to feel like an illustrated lecture as the semi-poetic narration (which crosses the line into preciousness) does the work of exposition while the images achieve a kind of disembodied beauty. The result is pretty to look at, but not particularly involving.

Ryu works nights in a fish market but has a second life as a hit woman. Ishida hires her to bump off David (Sergi Lopez), former boyfriend of Nagara’s daughter and whom Nagara holds responsible for her death. This is the thriller element promised in the film’s advertising and the erotic element will follow shortly as Ryu, instead of killing David, falls in love with him. Fairly explicit but oddly unmoving scenes in a Tokyo love hotel follow and having abandoned any pretense at believability the film simply goes through the motions for the remainder of its running time.

The picture and sound on the DVD of Map of the Sounds of Tokyo are both sharp and clear. The dialogue is in Japanese and English with subtitles in English and Spanish. The extras package is sparse, consisting of a skimpy six-minute “making of” featurette and the film’s English-language trailer and teaser (and yes, both promote the film as an erotic thriller).

How much you will enjoy Map of the Sounds of Tokyo comes down largely to what you expect when you sit down to watch a film. If you’re looking for a good story with believable relationships among the characters and which elicits your emotional involvement you should probably give it a miss. However if you place high value on the visual aspects of cinema and can tolerate being placed in the role of an observer of people who themselves seem to be living at one remove from their lives, then you may find much to enjoy in this film.

RATING 5 / 10