Human Comedy in Tokyo 東京人間喜劇 Dir: Koji Fukada (2008)

Human Comedy in Tokyo    Human Comedy Tokyo Film Poster

東京人間喜劇 Tokyo Ningen Kigeki

Running Time: 139 mins.

Release Date: October 11th, 2008

Director:  Koji Fukada

Writer:  Koji Fukada (Screenplay),

Starring: Michitaro Mizushima, Misako Watanabe, Shoichi Ozawa, Shinsuke Ashida, Mari Shiraki, Akira Hisamatsu, Tatsuo Matsushita, Reiko Arai, Kotoe Hatsui,

IMDB

Having watched Fukada’s later works, Harmonium (2016), Sayonara (2015) and Au revoir l’ete (2013) (in that order), I was a fool to expect his feature-film debut Human Comedy Tokyo (2008) to actually be a comedy. What it has to say about human relations makes it one of the bleakest films I have seen in a while as we find that the title is super ironic because he depicts people in Tokyo as super isolated.

 

The film is influenced by Balzac’s collection of novels, “La Comédie humaine”, and this fits in with Fukada’s M.O. since he is heavily influenced by French films and culture. The film follows a similar desire to examine what underpins Tokyo-life and settles on loneliness as depicted through three tales of average people in Tokyo, “White Cat”, “Photo”, and “Right Arm”.

White Cat” concerns a woman named Ms. Ohno (Reina Kakudate) whose boyfriend Satoshi pulls out of a date to an interpretive dance performance so she gives her spare ticket to another woman, Reiko Sasazuka (Eriko Nemoto), who is going through a divorce. Reiko is fine with that because she has a boyfriend, Furuya, although his faithfulness is in question. “Photo” follows Haruna (Yuri Ogino), an amateur photographer whose artistic debut at a gallery clashes with her friend Jun’s (Minako Inoue) wedding. They share the same pool of friends and Haruna agrees to go to Jun’s celebrations which suggests an awkward comedy of manners as people debate which event to go to but the focus resolutely remains on Haruna as she discovers her artistic skills are not enough of a pull. The third story, “Right Arm”, continues Jun’s story after her wedding to Masaki (Masayuki Yamamoto). Jun is preparing to be a mother when Masaki gets hit by a garbage truck and loses his right arm. His life changes as he finds work as an artisan becomes difficult and he develops phantom limb syndrome which causes him physical pain. Investigating a cure for his missing arm makes both him and Jun face the fictions that brought them together and keep them a couple.

Each story starts off innocuously with a confident person, a tight marriage or a set of friends but by the end we see it is all a lie. Through misconstruing others intentions, committing some social faux pas, or through not acknowledging some blind spot in their relationships, various characters find that they can carry on with their normal routines but when they grab on to a loved one for support, that person crumples and the veneer of love and friendship is thin and behind it is a gaping void of emptiness. Worse still, they probably sensed it all along but clung on to the fake image because they would have to face their isolation and own inner void.

The film revels in the details of the everyday. There are no fancy locations. Not the cool, shitamachi (downtown) places but the modest homes, galleries, and restaurants that layer the outer areas of Tokyo. The cast look like ordinary people and their dialogue has that naturalistic feel that snakes and stutters around subjects and does everything to avoid being brutally honest until a situation or a person’s impatience forces it out. Dialogue, it’s force and meaning isn’t always immediately obvious or flashy but listen carefully and hear how the spoken lines scintillates with resentment and desperation.

It’s been a whole year”, a wife desperate for a divorce says.

It’s only been a year”, her lonely husband shoots back.

Watch the acting carefully. Those situations build naturally from character-drive moments with the clockwork of human interaction ticking away. Anyone with experience in life will be able to read the twisting gears that make people move. The distant behaviour of a philandering partner, the innocuously supportive co-worker who has ulterior motives, the strained smiles in the face of narcissism that carries a person along in life. The movements are covered up by a recognisable veil of politeness, kindness, and forbearance that we all give to people in everyday situations, sometimes for ego’s sake, but mostly to make the process of human interaction go smoothly. However, the veil gets dragged off when it is tangled in the clockwork of life as the film allows the encounters between people to reach their nadir as people can take no more and unleash their pent-up feelings. These moments strike hard because of the quiet build-up so when we see the resulting wave of desolation that washes over a person who is mortified to find their “big talent” doesn’t live up to the hype, they really are alone in life, and they are weak-willed and quite horrible. These are just the appetisers for bigger let-downs and blow-ups that are quite hard to predict and shocking to witness.

What ties it all together is that the characters also float in and out of each other’s stories. The director himself shows up in a wedding scene. The stories really do plumb the depths of awkwardness until it all builds up to a stunning ending which is bleak and bizarre. I worry about Fukada.

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