Tetsuaki Matsue’s Tokyo Drifter (2011) is a hauntingly beautiful piece of art that brings a sense of happiness to a terrifying time period.
The lights in H&M are off; the clothes are illuminated by the vague street lamps outside. As the rain begins to come down, only a few people with umbrellas roam the streets, with the exception of one man.
He stands in the doorway of the dark H&M, guitar in hand and a yellow jacket on his back. His hair is black and in a messy fro, and his dark sunglasses engulf his eyes. As he strums his guitar ferociously, he growls lyrics in Japanese to no one but himself. The tempo slows, and he strums each and every note one by one ending the song with a quiet – but blunt – “Do-re-mi, fuck me.”
This is Tokyo. Not the Tokyo the world is constantly seeing in movies and pictures – with lights on, flashing in bright neon colors. This is Tokyo on the night May 27th, 2011.
Tetsuaki Matsue’s experimental documentary, featuring singer-songwriter Maeno Kenta, may be one of the simplest yet most effective documentaries of the decade. Two months after the triple disaster (earthquake-tsunami-nuclear meltdown) that shredded Japan to pieces, the country had to act upon their feet to get society back into shape. This meant energy-conserving black outs, regulated checks for non-radioactive water, and safe zones for those more vulnerable than the majority of the population. It was a frightening time for the citizens of Japan, and it was not really a time to make a movie, Matsue admitted to the audience at Thursday’s showing.
Matsue, who was born and raised in Tokyo, was not in Japan at the time of the catastrophe but rather in Korea. But even after returning to his native land, he felt the tenseness and uncertainty for the future of his country. Every day the people were told that there could be heavy amounts of radiation in the raindrops, and his beloved city, once glowing with lights on every building, became so much darker. So much so that he decided to film it.
After working with Kenta on a separate film – Live Tape (2009) – Matsue decided that he would like to film an intimate view of Tokyo on a night unlike many others. So, after a few phone calls and gathering of crew members, Matsue and Kenta set off on a beautiful expedition through the newly dark city.
The film, shot on a handheld camera, is not perfect. Most cuts are choppy, even just jump cutting to a shot a few seconds later for no aesthetic reason. Visually, the quality is low and often times the camera would be so blurry that it would be difficult to separate exactly what was going on. But all of this is a huge part of the magnificent of this film.
As we follow Kenta through the city, him singing silly songs about break ups and summertime in a voice that Bob Dylan would be proud of, there is definitely an uplifting feeling. Around him are anonymous faces that clutch tightly to their umbrellas and bags, going through the motions as carefully as they can.
The H&M scene is a little tongue-in-cheek, especially considering the circumstances in which Kenta is singing – hiding under the awning to escape the (possibly) radioactive rain – but the film delves into deeper and more emotional moments that, while unexpected, accent the film beautifully.
Right before the film cuts to Kenta singing “Fuck Me” in the storefront, there is a hauntingly beautiful shot of him standing on a staircase engulfed in shadows. Almost like a child singing to him or herself when he or she is scared, Kenta sings a song about the summer almost inaudibly, holding the guitar close and leaning against the wall. It is the first time in the movie that there’s true darkness, and it’s also the first time Kenta looks (or sounds) just as tense as the rest of the country in this terrifying time.
There are times where the darkness engulfs the whole screen, and all you can hear is the faint sounds of Kenta zipping his guitar in his case before hopping on his motorcycle and heading back into the night. To a person used to the westernized idea that streetlights are enough to light up our path, the movie doesn’t seem so absurd. But, again, the reason these scenes are so effective is the awareness that Tokyo, normally lit up with billions of lights, has these dark alleys and sudden blackness.
Overall the film is a magnificent piece of art. Kenta’s emotions flow naturally with the music, and without the presence of dialogue the film leaves the audience with a sense of nostalgia. Despite the hard-hitting moments of discomfort or even emotional struggle, the film takes a more uplifting route and by the end it’s hard to keep the grin from your face.