Isabel Coixet's Map of the Sounds of Tokyo, the seventh feature by the Barcelona-born helmer, putters out long before sultry killer-for-hire Rinko Kikuchi sits on brooding wine-store owner Sergi López's face in a hotel room designed to look like subway car and that says a lot about Coixet's abilities as a screenwriter and, far more pertinently, as a director. The impetus for the script was a trip Coixet took to Tokyo where, at a fish market, an employee refused to be photographed by her. She built this moment into a story about a young woman who works at a fish market and moonlights as an assassin, weaving in an agonized businessman who blames his daughter's abrupt and violent suicide on her loving boyfriend. The drama that emerges is the stuff of literally dozens of films, but in the hands of the right director and dialogist, this is a minor and generally perfunctory flaw.
In the case of Map of the Sounds of Tokyo, the familiarity of the scenario indeed hampers what ends up being yet another lethargically paced, sexually stifled and overtly artsy entry in Coixet's canon, a series of films that has yielded no sign of growth, ambition, or singular investment in its run. It makes sense, then, that Coixet and director of photography Jean-Claude Larrieu co-opt a negligible deal of their shots from Ozu in what I suppose might be called homage. But Coixet is too overwhelmed by this business of bereavement in her narrative to allow her aesthetic to build and breathe like the Japanese master did or, for that matter, Hou Hsiao-hsien did in Café Lumiere, his radiant tribute to Ozu. What concerns Coixet is the relationship that begins between Ryu (Kikuchi) and David (Lopez) after she is hired to dispose of him by his would-be father-in-law, Nagara (Takeo Nakahara). She is seduced by his taste in wine, humor, and aggressive nature, even if he only sees her as a proxy for his late beloved. Not that Coixet actually investigates any of these potentially thrilling themes.
Nor does she really put any real thought into the narrative facet that gives the film its name. Playing the part of roving narrator, spectator, and humble friend to Ryu, Min Tanaka offers what may be the film's only redeeming factor as a quiet sound engineer who eats ramen noodles and visits cemeteries with Ryu. Prowling the streets with a recorder and microphone, Tanaka's nameless overseer has a fascination with noise that Coixet redeploys over some nice overhead shots of Tokyo. In these moments, we get a slight whiff of the dichotomy between nature and technology that often characterizes the mystery and history of Tokyo and was itself explored far more fascinatingly in Jessica Oreck's Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo. These moments are fleeting, however, and Coixet gets right back to her business of watching people brood, punctuated by the occasional erotic rush of watching Lopez go down on Kikuchi.
Lopez seems a bit miscast here, as he seems unable to repress the inherent menace and cool emotional detachment that he has (rightfully) been praised for expressing; a late scene in which he sings Depeche Mode's "Enjoy the Silence" at a karaoke bar comes off as awkward and out of place. Kikuchi fares better, but that's only because her character demands a sense of detachment, an emotional tone that Coixet seems to both yearn for and reject throughout the film. In fact, the only character that seems to fully embrace Coixet's particularly dull and indecisive mood is Nagara, who is essentially the film's villain. The director in effect legitimizes a cruel, emotionally irresponsible, and frankly reprehensible figure that might have been interesting if she had lent him any sense of dimensionality but this is sadly not the case.
An image that Coixet favors, especially in the first hour, features squeezed lemons in a small bucket after being used in the shower by a group of women and, later, Ryu. It's not hard to see how Coixet might view her latest film as a sort of bitter fruit but if that is the case, she fails to find even a modicum of balance. Map of the Sounds of Tokyo is less a feel-bad movie than an oversized sulking session that spends the greater part of its runtime moping around, muting its emotions in the hope that it will hide how uncomplicated and shallow they really are.
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MPI Home Video's DVD transfer of Map of the Sounds of Tokyo can certainly be deemed passable, but it's a far cry from pristine. Tokyo's neon wilderness looks clear enough, but it lacks the crispness that a Blu-ray transfer might have allowed, though black levels and fine details are maintained solidly throughout. The audio similarly holds up but doesn't offer anything fancy and fails to embrace all channels. Atmosphere noise sometimes drowns out the hushed dialogue, but otherwise, the mixing and balance are sufficiently upheld.
A largely useless, six-minute featurette on how the film got off the ground is the only big prize here, failing to give any insight to the production or themes of the film. Trailers are included as well.
A chore of a film given a mediocre transfer, Map of the Sounds of Tokyo maintains Isabel Coixet's record of making pretentious and emotionally shallow clunkers that give the art house a bad name.