Sunday, May 14, 2006

Living on Tokyo Time

Living on Tokyo Time
(1987) Directed by Steven Okazaki

The box for Living on Tokyo Time (another great NA Library find) tries to sell this film as typical fish-out-of-water-and-into-zany-adventures 80's flick, which, while I wouldnt have minded that, I was pleasantly suprised to find Living on Tokyo Time to be a rich and charming film; truly this is a lost gem. The film is constructed around an arranged marriage between Kyoko (Minako Ohashi), a Japanese immigrant working in a Japanese restaurant and struggling with English (supposedly; Kyoko's vocabulary and pronunciation throughout seem fine to me), and Ken Nakagawa, who actually plays himself, at least in name. "Like Takagura Ken, the actor," Kyoko says to her mother in a letter to Tokyo, a cross-cultural method of identification used frequently; here it's Japanese film, but throughout it's often American music and food from both countries. Ken is a third generation American-born Japanese rocker who wears a different punk shirt every day (The Cramps, Black Flag) and has Johnny Thunders and Velvet Underground posters on his wall. The film begins with lenghty filmic passages devoted to each character, before they actually meet. Kyoto, who speaks through her letters to her mother (which are written in Japanese but spoken in English, which, despite the obvious practical translation for the benefit of the American audience, works as a kind of process of translation, shortening some of the distance between Kyoko and the Western hemisphere) is homesick, working in a Japanese retaurant, but is determined to have an authentic American experience, and earn citizenship. Her drag American co-worker (who insists on wearing a Kimono in the restaurant) has the bright idea of marrying her to one of the restaurant's regular customers (this actress' performance is actually one of the low-points of the film). Enter the consistently bored Ken, who eats donuts, obsesses over music, has unfulfilling relationships with American women, and doesn't do much else. Being passive and complicit in most areas of his life, Ken agrees to wed with little enthusiasm. The plan is that once her green card comes through they split up, meanwhile living in the same house, but sleeping in seperate beds, living as roommates and not lovers.

Ken plays in a band and hangs out with white and asian punk rockers and hippies, which must be a pretty diverse crowd, as the guitarist in the band is wearing a Ramones shirt in one scene, the drummer a Metallica shirt, and the bassist is dressed like a member of Genesis. A woman who owns their practice space is decked out in a Fabians shirt; in fact, everyone in Living on Tokyo Time is either wearing a band shirt or talking about music and dropping group names (Kyoko herself even wears a Cream shirt in one scene). I appreciate that the rock music obsessions of the characters is confined to the film itself. The actual score is composed by five Japanese musicians, along with several obscure bands, who all sound like a peppier Durutti Column. An essential bonding mechanism between the film's newlyweds is Kyoko's introduction to rock music, as Ken teaches Kyoko that Lou Reed wrote more songs than just "Walk on the Wild Side," and listens as she reads him Talking Heads and Red Hot Chili Peppers reviews out of music magazines.

A film like Living on Tokyo Time will probably never be released on DVD, which is a shame. Yet, Living on Tokyo Time is another in the long list of raw, forgotten 80's dramas, which somehow morph into carbon-dated artifacts as they rot on VHS shelves-- unfortunately panned and scanned-- but accumulating a kind of endearing tangible age. The tape is as old as the celluloid itself, essentially. While I find myself lately disinterested in melodramas and narrative storytelling in contemporary film, I can usually find something I like in older, dated films that, above all, tell a story. It may just be the aesthetics of older film that's drawing me in, but I don't think that's it. In the case of Living on Tokyo Time, I think that the director, Okazaki, actually cared about the story he was telling, and it shows. Steven Okazaki is a mystery to me; he's directed several films even more obscure than this one, and operated a camera for Terry Zwigoff in Crumb. His last few credits are TV documentaries.

While this film is an American production, with a primarily Japanese cast and crew, it reminds one of experimental HK cinema of the time, especially early Wong Kar-Wai. Like Wong, Okazaki's script is disjointed, languid, meditative and idiosyncratic. The acting is often amateurish yes, but the naturalistic presence of non-professional actors (both Ken and Minako Ohashi had never acted in a film before, and appently haven't acted since either) somehow works to Okazaki's advantage, as the characters seem as awakward and unsure as real people; especially Ken, who doesn't appear to act at all. Shots are bizaarely juxtaposed, the story take big leaps throughout, leaving gaps which become the audience's responsibility to fill in. The wedding for instance, is completely left out of the film. Okazaki also makes some odd choices as far as where his camera goes; sometimes the camera moves in opposition to the direction of narrative action. For example, when Mimi, Ken's sister, invites Ken to eat dinner at their father's house, there is a scene where Ken and Mimi exit the house for a serious conversation. Instead of immediately cutting to an exterior or following them out the door, the camera stays in the dining room, as Ken and Mimi's father and Mimi's white husband (Carl) sit awkwardly together, before cutting to Ken and Mimi.

The camera spends time studying the posters on Ken's wall, the expressions of his bandmates during practice, food, and random objects: toys, flowers, a lamp, cigarettes. The experience of 's alienation, which Kyoko cannot express in perfect English, is tangible given these scenes; the close up attention to detail of Okazaki's lens is comparable to an emigre 's experience in a big new country, full of strange objects and new people. The details are not only important, but trans-lingual. The dialog in the film is often an exercise in restraint, as Kyoko does not perfectly speak the English language, and Ken barely speaks at all. In a letter to her mother, Kyoto writes (ironically, in Japanese but English in the voice-over), "I cannot speak my feeling in English; He cannot speak his feelings in Japanese." Music and food become substitutes for frank conversation. Ken and Kyoko do profess their real feelings however, as something like affection begins to develop; with Ken's coffe-shop visits and Kyoko's letters to her mother in Tokyo. Initially, Ken thinks he may have strong emotions for Kyoko, but can not act on them, practically, and is not prepared for a relationship that he can not walk away from at any moment (which of course is why he accepted the marriage in the first place). Kyoko reads Ken's confusion, and it worries her, as falling in love is the last thing she wants, especially with an Americanized Japanese punk rocker in a ripped Misfits shirt.

The disconnect between Ken and Kyoko-- an Americanized Japanese man and a Japanese woman in America-- is only the explicit text of the film; the implicit subtext is the simple idea that people can't, or won't, always say what they mean. In Living on Tokyo Time, characters use music, food, pop culture, sex, and magazine articles to fill their conversations; no one says what they feel directly. The film does not seem to lament this fact however, it merely presents it, and seems to have faith in the ultimate good of its characters, even if they are all flawed. Miranda July's recent film, Me and You and Everyone We Know, actually reminds me quite a bit of this film, despite the fact that the mediating agents here are personal, wheras in July's film they are impersonal, electronic. The basic idea of both films is the same.

The catalyzing agent that convinces Ken is one simple scene which is so slight it may not leave it's impression without a careful viewing. In his friend Lane's diner, Ken listens to Lane as he pines for a woman he always "had a crush on," but whom he never asked out. Ken shows Lane a photo of Kyoto, to which he says "Wow.. she is really Japanese. She looks fine though. Don't screw it up." Lane leaves the shot, and Ken takes a bite of his hot dog, and slowly chews as the camera stays with him. His expression doesn't change, but the silence and stillness of the shot explain not only Ken's ambivalence towards Kyoto, but the ambivalence of his entire life.

The following scene is especially shocking, as Kyoko writes a letter to her mother, elaborating a lie that Ken has died in a tragic accident, and that she needs to return home to Tokyo. She hides the letter from Ken, who is sitting on the bed, eating a traditional Japanese meal she's prepared for him. This is not necessary however; she writes the letter in Japanese. This scene may be the most telling of the entire film. In the next shot she packs up and leaves the apartment, trading in Ken's t-shirts for a traditional Japanese dress, leaving behind a new letter (in English), as she leaves. As Ken finds the letter, Kyoko reads the text into the camera. It's a short, polite letter explaining nothing in any detail. When he finishes reading (and Kyoko finishes speaking), Ken absentmindedly strums at the guitar in his hands for a few seconds, and smashes the instrument. The music in the scene is a few sustained notes, subtly adding to the tension of the scene and allowing Ken's uncharacteristic release. The film ends with Kyoko reading her final letter, this time to Ken from Tokyo. The tone is distant but warm, as she invites Ken to one day visit her. While the film can't claim a happy ending in the traditional sense, it has at least allowed its characters self-realization, and has allowed Ken especially to reevaluate his life. The film ends with a text-on-black quote from the patron saint of outsider rock geeks, Captain Beefheart: "You can't escape gravity."