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December 23, 2010

Map of the Sound of Tokyo

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Isabel Coixet - 2009
IFC Films Region 1 DVD

Death, or at least the thought of mortality, is never far away in Isabel Coixet's films. The premise of a young woman who toils at a fish market secretly working as a killer for hire seems improbable, and the gender reversal twist of having the hit woman fall for her victim does little to disguise what is still a well worn narrative setup. None of this kept me from liking Map of the Sounds of Tokyo anyways.

There is an underdeveloped subplot involving the young woman, Ryu, and the film's narrator, who is unnamed. The narrator records sounds professionally, and is entranced by the slurping Ryu makes eating ramen, claiming it is the same sound his mother made. There are indications that the narrator, a much older man, has been recording Ryu from a distance. We never know whether the narrator is motivated by his own obsession with Ryu, or has other reasons for his secret recordings.

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Coixet's film is more about the fascination Europeans have for Japan, and the fascination Japanese have for things European, especially anything French. David, from Barcelona, the would be victim, has sex with Ryu in a love hotel called La Bastille. Their chosen room is decked out to resemble a subway car that appears to be running across the Seine. While David and Ryu make love, "La Vie en Rose" is on the soundtrack, but song in Japanese by Hibari Misora. Geographic considerations put aside, Coixet, a Spanish filmmaker who most often works in English language productions, also makes films about loners and outsiders. In this respect, Map of the Sound of Tokyo is similar Coixet's previous film, Elegy, with the emotionally repressed Ryu not unlike the aging academic, with the two characters finding love with strangers from foreign shores. Coixet's own fascination with Japan is made clear at her own website.

Food plays a key role in the film. The opening shot depicts nyortaimori, with tables of businessmen picking off sushi from nearly nude women. It is at this dinner that one of the businessmen, Nagara, receives the call that sets the plot in motion. The narrator and Ryu meet at The Ramen Museum. It is also at a small restaurant that David breaks the ice with Ryu, precisely because he does not slurp his ramen.

With some of the sexual content, Rinko Kikuchi's performance harkens back to the role that gained her international attention in Babel. In the scenes of intimacy, I was also reminded of Sergi Lopez in An Affair of Love. Is it possible that those were the films Coixet was thinking of in casting her leads? In discussing the film, Coixet has stated: "I was also influenced by the fascination I feel for contemporary Japanese culture and the atmosphere I find in the novels of Haruki Murakami and Banana Yoshimoto as well as by my unconcealed addiction to wasabi and the almost tangible vibrations emanating from Tokyo during the night: a mixture of expectation, mystery, darkness and tenderness that leaves an indelible mark." By coincidence, Kikuchi stars in the film adaptation of Murakami's Norwegian Wood. I had just seen Elegy a couple of days ago. That film had an added emotion heft watching Dennis Hopper as a dying poet. Some of the critical response to Map of the Sound of Tokyo has been complaints that the film is only surface deep, although admittedly an attractive surface. Maybe the best way to appreciate the film is to regard like some Japanese dining where it is less about what is being served, and more about the presentation of the meal.

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Posted by peter at December 23, 2010 08:20 AM