I'm on quite the strange roll with Rinko Kikuchi. I've sampled a small chunk of her filmography (this movie, The Brothers Bloom and Assault Girls ) but have somehow managed to watch only movies featuring laconic performances by her. Perhaps it's a sign that I need to go back and check out Babel which saw her give a much-lauded performance as a deaf-mute girl. Until then, I can only assume that she is quite comfortable carrying a character with her expressive face alone. This was definitely true of The Brothers Bloom where she stole every scene while saying very little. This was even true of Assault Girls where she was the playful highlight of an otherwise unimpressive flick. With Map of the Sounds of Tokyo, she is still the best part of the film but that isn't too much of an achievement since the movie surrounding her is a plodding, meandering mess.
"We've gone a few times to a love hotel.
Ryu (Kikuchi) says these words to David (Sergi Lopez) as a blunt and entirely factual summation of their relationship. She forgets to mention that she was also paid to kill him but that's the sort of thing that hardly ever comes up in a lovers' quarrel. You see, Ryu is a fishmonger by day and assassin by night. She is contracted by Nagara (Takeo Nakahara), a Japanese businessman, to eliminate his dead daughter's boyfriend, David. Nagara's daughter committed suicide, an action that David is indirectly held responsible for. When Ryu makes contact with David, she is quickly sucked in by his cheesy come-ons regarding the sensuality of wine. Suddenly her intended mark has become her fornication partner in a weird hotel room outfitted to look like the interior of a subway car. Complications ensue...and they eat ramen (but not in that order).
It's kind of amazing, just how much I was underwhelmed by this film. Perhaps it's because it held so much promise in the beginning. Watching Nagara receive news of his daughter's death while surrounded by businessmen eating sushi off the naked bodies of nubile young women gave the proceedings an off-kilter but operatic air. Even Ryu's introduction, with narration by Min Tanaka's character indicated her tragic and mysterious past. All signs pointed to an electric confrontation between Ryu and David. They met in David's wine store and then...the film promptly flatlined. There were no spikes of excitement or flashes of interest, just a steady decline into boredom-laced nothingness. This is especially surprising considering just how often our leads get naked in their subway car of sex.
Ryu and David's scenes of coupling evoke little passion in the viewer because they are practically ritualistic for the characters. Writer/Director Isabel Coixet wants to present us with two damaged people who fulfill specific needs for each other. Ryu gives David a body on which to project his dead girlfriend's face while David gives Ryu an urgency that she hasn't felt in a long time (if ever). This twisted symbiotic relationship would be an interesting character study if we had more interesting characters to study. To be more specific, David is problematic. He comes across as an empty vessel in need of something to replace the painful memories of past love. Sergi Lopez captures none of David's emptiness but paints him with every possible shade of beige blandness. David is so vacant that Ryu's attraction to him is completely baffling.
Ryu stands out due to Kikuchi's clinical and detached portrayal. The duality of fishmonger and assassin isn't too strange when one considers how much both professions have in common. They both fill Ryu with the coldness of death and they both leave her with hands that never come clean. I would gladly watch a film dedicated to Ryu's bloodstained life of sadness and solitude but this is not that film. Coixet wastes Ryu on mirroring David's blankness and this is the film's true undoing. With that said, the film does an excellent job capturing the stark beauty of Tokyo at night. The sound design also serves the film nicely by highlighting tiny aural details that paint a quieter picture of the city that is known for its hustle and bustle. Sadly these only appear to be alluring garnish on an otherwise unattractive meal.