Top 5: Movies set in Tokyo by Paolo Cabrelli

5. Godzilla (1954)

godzilla gentry style

Ishiro Honda’s Gojira is a snarling dystopia of the present, pre-occupied by Japan’s legitimate anxiety over the nuclear capabilities of the USA. The mutant terrorist lays waste to the towering structures and, in doing so, stems the post-war economic resurrection of the city. Acting almost as an agent for Western forces, Godzilla has a strange place in the hearts of the people: at once an enviable, almost inspirational power but also an uncontrollable one. The urban landscape is a battle-ground and this iconic beast represents the awesome dangers of living in man-made world, substituting the peaceful order of nature with demented human designs. Much copied (see last year’s The Host) – and pummeled into near worthlessness by endlessly inferior sequels – this is a spectacular disaster movie that manages, from beneath the rubble, to tell a thrilling political allegory.

4.  Love / Juice (2000)

love juice gentry style

A mesmerising film about two young women in love, pressed together by the cramped urban environment, swimming around one another like fish trapped in a bowl. Kyoko resists Chinatsu’s sexual advances, perversely revelling in the unfulfilled tension that charges the film. Chinatsu becomes a ball of sexual energy, flirting with any man in range, her actions always in spite of the girlish, teasing Kyoko. Tokyo doesn’t shrug off its seedy reputation here: the locations (nightclubs, bunny bars) reflect a city trapped in some sort of wet-dream, obsessed with girls and the delight to be had by forcing them into positions of submission. In that respect, the relationship between the lead characters plays-out the male desire to conquer against the female struggle to resist. The director, Kaze Shindo has a remarkable eye for aptly framed subjects, reminiscent of the washed out charm of Buffalo 66. Unusual and engaging, Love / Juice is so naturalistic in tone that it is hard not to be an accomplice in the kind of trivial but alluring voyeurism it condemns.

3. Drunken Angel (1948)

drunken angel gentry style

Kurosawa borrows the style and form of film noir to highlight the sinister occupation of Tokyo, full of side streets, secret rooms and shadowy figures. This identity shift for the city is matched by schizophrenia amongst the characters, who seem terrorised by the Americanization of their culture. The polluted air stinks and the dirty streets are dangerous. Toshiro Mifune’s central performance as Matsunga is intensely transfixing, a kind of vital force amid the decay. He plays a tubercular gangster who is ordered by a Dr. Sanada to give up his violent, boozy life or face certain death. His plans go awry when a rival is released from jail and begins to muscle in on his territory. The doctor remains a paternal force, struggling to keep Matsunga alive in spite of the ferocious power of death which seems to attack from all sides. Drunken Angel is a stylish, cynical look at Tokyo’s shadows and the Western stereotypes that cast them.

2. The Ruined Map (1968)


The dream-logic of Kobo Abe is perfectly in-tact in this adaptation of his existential detective novel. A private detective is hired by a woman to locate her missing husband. The man-for-hire soon finds himself out of depth, faced with questions not answers – about his own being, his very purpose – drawn into a kind of madness of uncertainty. Our detective stalks through the dark streets of Tokyo chasing shadows, following clues into blind alleyways and consumed by the overwhelming complexity of the city. The Ruined Map paves the way for metaphysical tail-chasers like Arthur Penn’s Nightmoves and Alan J. Pakula’s Klute, where we observe possessed men bemused by the impossible threads and traces to be found, if one dares to look, behind closed doors. Teshigahara’s film is a kind of nightmare, a crisis of understanding faced by a man not yet ready, or able, to locate himself.

1. Tokyo Story (1953)


Ozu’s meditative domestic epic portrays Tokyo as a maze of small rooms wherein people still manage to get lost, forgetting who they are, as if compartmentalized out of existence. The notoriously contemplative pace can be hypnotic dissolving all barriers between the majestic film and the viewer. Grandparents arrive in Tokyo to visit their children and grandchildren to find, to their dismay, that they are considered impositions, largely unwelcome in the demanding, fast-paced world of the modern city. The tragic drift of the elderly couple from their own children, from their own world, is exquisitely depicted and a slow melancholy takes hold in the very fabric of the tale. The couple are not merely faced with a generation gap, rather it’s an emotional chasm torn open by an economic boom. Ozu’s film is a lyrical masterpiece, documenting the awkward birth of modern Japan, the sidelining of the traditional and proud in place of the immediate and shallow – a haunting film of the kind almost unimaginable outside Japan.


One response to “Top 5: Movies set in Tokyo by Paolo Cabrelli

  1. Excellent stuff, much thanks for the list. I’d also recommend Sam Fuller’s ‘House of Bamboo’ for an unglamourised American view of the city. Another film that shows the seedier side of modern Tokyo is Ryu Murakami’s ‘Tokyo Decadence’.

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