Map of the Sounds of Tokyo

Original title
Mapa de los sonidos de Tokio
Running time
109 minutes
6 October 2012
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Isabel Coixet’s Map of the Sounds of Tokyo is a unique and (for the most part) interesting addition to a number of quiet and introspective art films about foreigners in Tokyo and their accompanying feelings of dislocation and alienation. The most notable example of these is the Oscar-nominated Lost in Translation (2003), which remains a superficial survey of Tokyo, and Japan generally, because each experience and encounter is filtered through the touristic gaze of short-term guests (Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansen, though more precisely director Sofia Coppola herself). In contrast, Map of the Sounds of Tokyo, while primarily being about a similar loneliness, is more interested in the nondescript everyday sensations – the tastes, sounds, and lights – of Tokyo’s urban spaces. Coixet avoids the familiar pratfalls of linguistic barriers and cultural misunderstandings as sources of dramatic tension.

The film begins with two plot strands that eventually merge – the first is of Nagara, a wealthy Japanese businessman (Nakahara) with implied criminal ties who suddenly receives word that his adult daughter has committed suicide; he soon surmises that this was, in part, due to her turbulent relationship with her Spanish boyfriend, David (López). Overlooking his daughter’s history of emotional instability, Nagara hastily concludes that David is solely responsible for the death and secretly commissions to have him killed. An early sequence establishes Nagara’s distain for foreigners’ exploitation of Japanese customs, indicating that his desire for vengeance is partially motivated by xenophobic racism.

The second follows Ryu (Kikuchi), a mysterious and solitary young woman who works the night shift of a fish market. We eventually learn that Ryu is a professional killer when she is hired to murder David. However, and for unspecified reasons, she becomes curiously drawn to her target, and before long, the two begin an affair. Ryu’s real agenda becomes irreparably compromised by her growing romantic feelings, and she decides to demand a release from her contract.

The slow pacing of the film is held together by the understated performances of its actors, who are often required to communicate a great deal of hidden emotion through simple glances and gestures. López, a fine actor best known internationally for playing the psychopathic general in Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), and Kikuchi are both intriguing actors who unfortunately possess a lot more range than Coixet’s screenplay allows for.

Case in point, Ryu is unconvincing as a cold-blooded assassin. We’ve seen the brooding loner/hitman archetype before, and with so little information characterizing her past, there is little dramatic impact when she gradually falls in love with her supposed target. Despite evidence that her services come highly recommended in the underworld, there is no sense of her effectiveness or ruthlessness as a killer, a necessary detail if we are to take it on faith that her attempt to reach out to someone romantically signals a radical departure in her life. Without an identifiable emotional arc to accompany the gravity of her choices, Ryu remains enigmatic in ways that do not necessarily contribute to some of the rich ambiguities of Map’s art-cinema sensibilities. Rather, the film fails to generate plausible chemistry between the two leads – apart from their graphic lovemaking – before the story reaches its tragic, but contrived final act.

The film’s real strengths come from its sensual and sensorial interpretation of Tokyo and the streets, ramen shops, markets, karaoke bars, and love hotels that comprise its geography. The intriguing notion that the rapid pace of life in the city is reducible to its daily sensations and appetites is central to the film’s romance and creates a language through which its two lonely souls form a meaningful connection. Not surprisingly, then, we observe several, seemingly trivial details that structure the relationship: the taste of wine, the slurping sounds of eating noodles, and in a bit of perverse humor (in an otherwise humorless film), the scent of lemons during a sex act. These moments are in deliberate contrast with an opening scene in which boisterous Western businessmen eat sushi from the bodies of naked women in an upscale sushi den; the superficial, Orientalist fantasies here render the sensory pleasures of the scene impersonal, artificial, and degrading.

These elements make Map stand out from similar films, and they add texture to what is essentially a tragic romance, although the narrative initially teases us with the recognizable conventions of a thriller. Some viewers will, however, be turned off by the film’s pretentiousness and preoccupation with symbolism and morally ambiguous characterizations that, combined, lead to unsatisfying resolutions. One example of the former includes David’s choice of location for every sexual rendezvous: a themed room at a love hotel designed to resemble the interior of an old train car. It is a distinctive choice of setting befitting the film’s themes of urban sensuality, further linking them to the transience – both geographical and existential – of the main characters. In practical terms, however, the room looks silly, uncomfortable, and is phenomenally unsuitable for lovemaking. Weird inclusions like this underscore the overall problem with the film: its symbolic priorities and pragmatic narrative considerations are often at odds with each other.

Such is also the case with a bizarre secondary character, an elderly man (Min Tanaka) who once approached Ryu at a ramen shop and now enjoys creating audio recordings of their frequent conversations. The film’s soundtrack occasionally features the playback of these recordings, with his accompanying commentary doubling as voiceover narration; these allow us rare insights into the way Ryu sees the world and outline the film’s themes, which may otherwise be too oblique for viewers. Yet the unconventional nature of Ryu’s relationship to this man – apparently the one person she confides in – lacks any sense of realism. As it becomes clear this Narrator only exists as an avatar for Ryu’s unspoken anxieties and longings, the precise history and nature of their friendship becomes arbitrary. Once again, the film has difficulty reconciling its symbolic ambition with the eventual need to bring its narrative components together in the final scenes. The ending is appropriately downbeat, but the concluding narration leaves the viewer somewhat dissatisfied and unconvinced of the ultimate importance of the each character’s choices.