Tokyo Tower (2005)

Author: Patrick Galvan
June 1, 2016
Note: review may contain spoilers

I have a deep fascination with stories about nonconformist relationships, and that interest may very well augment the immense disappointment I feel with most films I see on the subject. The idea of a dramatic movie about people from different backgrounds—cultures, generations, religions, etc.—is nothing short of invigorating; concept-wise, it's more gripping than the 'cute boy meets cute girl' melodrama available any given week. Instead of snobby rivals and dreaded secrets which the audience knows from the first reel will be discovered, the couple's relationship can be challenged by more believable obstacles such as differences in beliefs and social environments. It all makes for a fascinating premise. Much to my dismay, though, a good many filmmakers in the last thirty years or so have chosen to either sling mud at the material or execute it in a very mawkish, impersonal manner. With such a detached attitude, a story about lovers separated by, say, a few decades in age can come across as sheer tedium.

Tokyo TowerSpringing to mind are two relatively recent films featuring the fine Japanese actress Hitomi Kuroki. In the late 1990s, she won the Japanese Academy Prize for her performance in Lost Paradise (1997), in which she played a married woman who falls in love with an older man. In spite of the fine performances—Kuroki's included—the film, to me, felt more monotonous than absorbing. Eight years later, she made another film about a nonconformist romance, this time on the opposite end of the age gap: now a forty-year-old woman involved with a man twenty years her junior. I found the second picture, Tokyo Tower, a little more enjoyable but still far from a success. There is commendable material here, but it is in service of a narrative in dire need of fewer subplots and better pacing.

The film opens with Toru (Jun'ichi Okada) and Shifumi (Kuroki) spending a rainy evening together in a Tokyo hotel, continuing the affair they've been carrying on for three years. (Shifumi is married and an associate of Toru's mother.) Elsewhere in the city, Toru's friend Koji (Jun Matsumoto) meets and also strikes up a sexual relationship with an older woman named Kimiko (Shinobu Terajima), a housewife herself. Toru and Koji are both bachelors in their early twenties, but they have dissimilar beliefs and needs. And Shifumi and Kimiko are determined to keep their affairs secret.

To the credit of the filmmakers (and perhaps original author Kaori Eguni; I have not read the book), Tokyo Tower provides us with two couples and two storylines that, in spite of their respective faults, do ring with dramatic potential. Largely because of the perspectives provided by the women. They might have less screen time (I haven't clocked it) but many of the film's powerful moments concern what they say and experience. Shifumi's marriage is stable, but passionless. Her husband (Goro Kishitani) gives her a cushy lifestyle but doesn't even try to supply the emotional happiness and company she receives from Toru. At one point she confesses wedlock has meant little more to her than someone to eat dinner with. It is oftentimes quiet little moments such as this, in which characters reveal something about themselves—and about life—that really affect me.

Tokyo TowerHowever, the more engaging of the two women is undoubtedly Kimiko. She is a character Mikio Naruse would have appreciated: the miserable housewife so desperate to escape from the suffocating binds of her marriage, if only for an interim, that she rushes into an affair with a younger man. Her discontentment is understandable. We see her bemoaning the fact that her life has degenerated into cooking for her husband and simply being around whenever he needs—or, rather, wants—her. A strong character, and Shinobu Terajima's magnificent performance makes it even better. (I'm pleased the Japanese Academy elected to nominate her for her work here.) She also holds claim to the most profound and moving line in the picture, when she informs her lover he has no idea what goes on in the mind of a thirty-five-year-old housewife. But we the audience, having witnessed her tribulations, understand completely.

A nice touch: Shifumi and Kimiko never meet.

Toru himself is an appealing enough lead—the romantic-at-heart who sincerely wants to understand the woman he has fallen in love with. He's likable.

Something else. This might be a case of reading too deep into it, but I couldn't help picking up a faint suggestion that Toru's obsessing over Shifumi stemmed from some Freudian search for a surrogate parent. His parents split when he was ten, and there is no meaningful relationship between him and his business-minded mother (Kimiko Yo). Perhaps this would have made for an interesting route to explore.

I wish I could extend my enthusiasm to the character of Koji; unfortunately, he is one of Tokyo Tower's big, crippling weaknesses. The film never seems to decide just what sort of character he's supposed to be. For Koji constantly bounces back and forth between being a flawed but empathetic youth and a careless, lust-driven playboy. Not a bad idea, but there's very little rhythm to his decisions. When he turns, it feels like a change for the sake of the scene rather than a change in context with what happened previous. As a result, Koji comes across as a tool of the plot, not a three-dimensional human being. Not to mention he's to blame for a good deal of the film's narrative-stifling detritus. In addition to Koji trying to balance his affair with Kimiko and his relationship with his age-appropriate girlfriend (Rosa Kato, who is so seldom seen and mentioned that she might as well have been an extra), the story is frequently halted by a dismal subplot concerning the daughter of one of his one-night stands. Here's the gist. Koji and the daughter were classmates in high school, and one day, she caught him sleeping with her mother. Now the daughter (Aya Hirayama) has returned to exact revenge on Koji by sneaking into his apartment, crawling into bed beside him while he sleeps, and trying to coerce him into having a one-night stand with her. (Are you following this?)

Granted, with stronger writing, all of this could have resulted in a fascinating portrait of a player whose womanizing ultimately destroyed everything he had, or at least affected his life in some profound way. But these subplots do not resonate, dragging out the story to the point of ennui.

Tokyo Tower

Pacing in general is a problem. Takashi Minamoto, the director and screenwriter, who has worked primarily in television, struggles to create a smoothly flowing screen story. Along with the aforementioned subplots, several early-movie scenes (such as Shifumi and Toru exchanging forgettable dialogue in elevators and on balconies) could have been cut without any loss to the story. A tension-free sequence of Shifumi's husband interrupting the lovers' weekend getaway might as well have been left on the editing room floor. And then there is the film's bewildering Paris-set coda. Lacking any real emotional punch, the denouement's only genuine bright spot is the appearance of famed French actress Mylène Demongeot. I hope her being in this film has inspired at least a few viewers to check out the rest of her career.

On a positive note, Minamoto does show a solid instinct for creating pretty images. He makes good use of wide shots, overhead camera angles, and keeps the artsy tricks to a minimum (the fish-eye lens is used one time). I also enjoyed his placement of various objects (blinds, railings, cherry blossom trees, etc.) in the foreground to keep the frames interesting.

He's also done a nice job using of the eponymous tower as a presence in the story. Throughout the film, Tokyo's tower is regularly visible: on the skyline, through windows, in the reflection of glass. I suspect someone on the crew studied Leo McCarey's Love Affair (1939) and An Affair to Remember (1957) prior to shooting. However, there is no scene actually set on the tower, as in the cited American dramas—although such a moment might have elevated interest. Minamoto instead uses it for symbolism. As Toru and Shifumi hold hands on New Year's Eve, ready for another year of rendezvous, the tower lights activate in a spectacular blue display. When Shifumi is running through the streets in search of Toru, she gives up at the exact moment the tower lights turn off. At times, the tower is visible too much too often, to the point where it seems to be ramming its point home too hard, but it's clever use of imagery nonetheless. And there is a moment where director Minamoto appears to have taken a page out of Hitchcock's book. Toru and Shifumi are in the hotel room; Toru sits at the window, eyes on the tower; he then steps out of frame to join Shifumi; the camera presses a little closer to the window and the tall, stiff, erect figure outside; and we listen to the two lovers enjoying themselves in bed. Japan's famous communications tower has apparently become a phallic image.

The piano-heavy score by Hajime Mizoguchi is rather pleasant. Mizoguchi's tracks are rarely utilized, but when they emerge, they generally complement the drama rather than intrude on it. The only weak points are his suspense cues, one putting too much emphasis on drums, the other not bad but sounding too much like a knock-off of Ennio Morricone's score for the 1982 The Thing. (Can you say, 'perplexing?') Three songs—two in English, one in Japanese—punctuate the soundtrack; the final one, Forever Mine, sung by Tatsuro Yamashita, makes for a particularly nice listen.

Tokyo TowerIn the end, Tokyo Tower stands out as little more than a dull romantic drama and yet another disappointing film on nonconformist relationships. It's a significant step down from motion pictures by people such as Kozaburo Yoshimura, who could find the tenderness in relationships of this nature. In fact, as an alternative to Tokyo Tower, I recommend hunting down Yoshimura's Temptation from 1948, about a married man in postwar Japan who falls in love with the daughter of a deceased friend. Yoshimura's picture made no delusions about what it was and refused to hamper itself with excessive subplots and a bloated run time. It was also very touching. What a shame such storytelling techniques seem to have been tossed aside these days in favor of pretentiousness and impersonal demeanors.

For all its good qualities and intentions, Tokyo Tower is not very moving.