Map of the Sounds of Tokyo (2009) Dir. Isabel Coixet
A thoroughly sad movie, offering no comfort or joy.
This movie epitomizes sadness and loneliness. Characters find no happiness in life. And if they do, it’s fleeting, incomplete, not enough to fulfill a single moment, least a lifetime. Ryu (Rinko Kikuchi) works night shifts in a fish market. David (Sergi López) runs a wine shop. Nagara (Takeo Nakahara) works for a big corporation. And the old man (Min Tanaka), the unnamed narrator, records different kinds of sounds. What they all share in common is Tokyo. What also connects them is the death of Midori, Nagara’s daughter and David’s girlfriend. Her suicide triggers one decision that enables Ryu and David to meet. Once they do, they start a brief but intense relationship. Still, none of them is happy, at all.
Ryu and the narrator are two lonely souls. Their unusual friendship is filled with silence and sounds, and very few words. The man records Ryu’s sounds: when she walks in her working boots, when she eats, slurping; they fascinate him. Then, he listens to them all over again at home. When they meet, they often sit in complete silence, as if silence was a thing to share. He even says silence at a cemetery is especially unique. Interestingly, there’s always so much noise in the cemetery: the insects, the wind, the water. Perhaps, paradoxically, they appreciate the silence rich with sounds of nature the most. As for Ryu, she’s a lonely, taciturn girl. Her life seems monotonous and empty, except she’s not a regular Japanese girl. Apart from the fish market job, she works as a killer for hire. Amazingly, two such different people enjoy each others company. What’s more, they complete each other in the sense that the narrator tells Ryu’s story, tells what emotions she goes through, and what changes he notices in her life after she meets David.
Ryu and David are another pair of lonely souls. He, a Spanish living in Tokyo for three years, barely pulls himself together after his girlfriend’s suicide. Ryu enters his life when he’s most vulnerable and hurt. Somehow, she feels happiness and genuinely laughs in his presence. Their moments together seem painfully precious since they pass quickly, and inevitably lead to an end. We might say their relationship is based on sex only, but that’s not true. Even if they deny their own feelings (David cruelly admits he’s still thinking about Midori), they’re drawn to each other, clinging to this thing they have together. Their feeling has a chance to change them, to turn their lives for good, but we suspect happy-go-lucky ending is out of the question. It’s not that kind of movie. Unfortunately, they are the most mismatched couple we could imagine. The casting people failed. There is no chemistry between them whatsoever. They fail to convince me these two characters could seriously be a couple, even a couple of lovers (perhaps, especially lovers). Somehow, their relationship repulses me. Their looks – her small body with alabaster skin and his broad, hairy body – contrast too drastically. I don’t buy it when she falls for him so instantaneously. I don’t buy his alleged mourning – he doesn’t evoke any sympathy. For this reason (among many), this movie doesn’t work.
The last lonely souls are Nagara and his assistant. The news of his daughter’s death crashes Nagara. He can’t get over it. He clings to the memories of their time together when she was a little girl. His life becomes full of misery, pain, and loneliness. Nothing can comfort or console him. His faithful assistant is by his side all the time. He struggles with solitude, as well. They both feel it’s not Midori who should be dead, but David, who has no right to live. Plus, they’re both haunted by the words Midori wrote with her blood, the words that are ambiguous. We don’t know to whom they’re addressed. Surely, they stay with us throughout the story, emerging from time to time, not letting go.
What about the title? I must admit I feel led astray. Except for the subway, the fish market, and a few back alleys, the movie doesn’t focus on Tokyo itself. The fact that David is Spanish is supposed to (nicely) contrast with Ryu — their personalities and temperaments differ a lot. Yet, the city doesn’t become another character, doesn’t have a voice of its own. Instead, it serves as a background to the characters’ solitude and suffering. Finally, the sounds. In this case, I’m a bit disappointed, too. They don’t serve any particular purpose except being a decoration. They should fascinate us as strongly as they fascinate the narrator, and _creep into_ the story gently and subtly, becoming its inseparable part. They’re not. The faces of the characters, the images of Ryu and David, even the food they eat are more memorable, and carry more weight than the sounds.
Map of the Sounds of Tokyo will not reach every viewer. In fact, it’s best to watch it when you’re in mood for a reflexive, sad, and emotional story about loneliness (dare I go as far as to say: collective loneliness?). You may look in vain for any happiness and joy here. And sadly, many elements disappoint. Yet, the movie isn’t depressing. It merely presents the lonely side of life. So who should watch Coixet’s movie? As the song goes, ‘Only the Lonely.’
Long days, pleasant nights,