83 minutes, Japan, 2011
Reviewed by Arturo Arrerondo
Writer/director Matsumoto Kana’s brilliant follow-up to her equally brilliant Mother Water follows the actress Touko, portrayed by Kobayashi Satomi, who hitchhikes into the Tokyo night, encountering random people she connects with over the next two days. The first, Nagano (Kase Ryo, whom I have yet to see take on a bad role), believes he’s saving her from a suicide attempt as she runs toward a truck outside a konbini. After an awkward introduction, they bond while Nagano gives Touko a lift in his van and Touko reveals she is an actress who walked off set during a film shoot. Next, Touko re-unites with former colleague Kikuchi (Harada Tomoyo), a screenwriter now working at an independent cinema. Lastly, the following morning, Touku meets Yasuko (Kuroki Haru, in what I believe is her debut role), a young woman studying for the college entry exam and applying for a job at a zoo.
Tokyo Oasis belongs to a sub-genre of slice of life known as “iyashikei” or spiritual healing, which focuses on characters in serene environments living tranquil lives and showcases narratives meant to calm the audience and have them reflect on the nicer moments in life. It’s a sub-genre where a main feature is that plots often involve nothing happening, per se. Sure enough, there is not a great amount of conflict in the story, so if you’re the type of person who requires action to find a movie interesting, this is not a movie for you. However, if you’re willing to be patient, you’ll be given a chance to empathize with characters who are honest about themselves because they have no reason not to be. Besides that, there’s a lot that happens. Touko and Nagano drive past Tokyo Tower, they talk about volleyball, they go to a beach, Yasuko tries to get a job. So, there are plenty of events to unfold, it’s just not done in a way that the West considers to be exciting. Not to mention, I don’t know why anyone would need something as trivial as a plot when you’re given an extended cameo by Motai Masako.
Shot with natural light by cinematographer Ohashi Jin, the nighttime photography must be singled out for its excellence, a significant feat given that it appears to have been shot on film. Many scenes are framed in static shots, with only a handful of tracking shots and even then, the camera nearly crawls. This allows the viewer to focus on the dialog and characters, rather than any symbolism or hard to notice symbiotics. While still not necessarily a “what you see is what you get” film, it is very frank in its bare bones approach to realism. Despite the lack of camera movement, the film is paced quite briskly, considering the runtime isn’t even an hour and a half. Even the ambience is minimal; aside from the opening score, the occasional car, animals at the zoo, the interludes at the zoo during the finale, and the closing theme song, the chief sounds are what the characters say. Simple, sweet, pure. This is a perfect film, whether you view it as a whole work or three separate vignettes.
While the words are what drive the character relations, the silences between their words are just as important; these are characters who contemplate their lives and Matsumoto Kana has put a lot of contemplation into her work. Maybe the silence is for the characters to take their time thinking. They are, after all, very thoughtful with their words and we can’t simply attribute that to their culture, because not every Japanese film is like this. These are special, vulnerable moments we share. The characters are always honest, the streets are always quiet, and to quote Japanese poet Saihate Tahi, the Tokyo night sky is always the densest shade of blue.