The history of modern Tokyo is to some extent a history of coping with catastrophe. Many, if not all, of the most famous Tokyo films seem haunted by some huge, destructive nightmare at the edges of the action. Even the quieter films that we’ve listed below are weighted down with an unshakeable historical awareness, be it of the bomb, natural disaster, or the shame of world war two.
This awareness of catastrophe, it has been suggested, leads to a heightened sense of life’s transience, and this in turn leads to Tokyo’s constant experimentation with fashions and styles.
The list contains many films by Japanese film-makers, but also some films by foreigners. It’s something of a cliche to claim that these outsiders tried and failed to capture the essence of Tokyo. No director in his or her right mind would attempt something so self-evidently futile, not even—more arguably—those from Tokyo.
Taken in a group, however, along with the many films not included here, some kind of picture emerges—a fractured, chaotic, kaleidoscopic picture, certainly, but nonetheless a rich, mysterious one that invites continual contemplation and exploration.
16. Tokyo Tribe (Sion Sono, 2014)
Sion Sono has earned a worldwide reputation for his love it or hate it, eclectic, postmodern film-making. Love Exposure continues to elude any consensus as to whether it’s a masterpiece or trash.
Tokyo Tribe is no exception, and pushes the the more eccentric aspects of his style to even further reaches. The film can be described as something of a rap opera. There are numerous musical interludes, and much of the exposition is rapped by the cast.
Throughout there is an almost continuous backing track of hip-hop and trap music. The plot revolves around the various gangs (or tribes) who control Tokyo’s underworld, and their conflict with the sadistic kingpin Lord Buppa. Realism isn’t the aim here.
The characters are decidedly larger than life, the sets are are a kind of neon baroque in their mix of gaudily lit slums and red light districts, and much of the plot and action runs like an animated, rather than live-action, film. Like most of Sono’s output, this film is definitely not for everyone, but viewers with a taste for the strange and chaotic will certainly find a lot to appreciate.
15. Tokyo! (Bong Joon-Ho, Michel Gondry, Leos Carax, 2008)
Tokyo! is a pormanteau film in three parts. None of the films are made by a Japanese film-maker, which makes it – among other things – an intriguing synthesis of outsiders’ views of the city. Bong-Joon-Ho (most famous for The Host) focuses on Tokyo’s otaku, shut-in culture, so it unsurprisingly offers little in the way of sightseeing. Rather the plot revolves around a man who hasn’t left his apartment for ten years, but has his emotions kicked back into gear by a pizza-delivery girl.
Michel Gondry’s film concerns the problems of a young couple moving to Tokyo from the provinces. Anyone familiar with Gondry can expect to expect the unexpected.
Leos Carax, meanwhile, offers a typically dark story about a sewer-dwelling psychopath, named Mr. Merde. Played brilliantly by Carax’s go-to outsider Denis Lavant, Merde intermittently emerges from the sewers to terrorise the inhabitants of Tokyo like some sort of human Godzilla (he’s dressed in a reptilian green, and the score borrows from Ishiro Honda’s original film).
Later the film turns into a fairly blunt and definitely divisive political satire about international relations. Regardless of whether this later change in tone is successful or not, Carax clearly reveled in the chance to film in Tokyo, and displays a great fondness for it, as well as its cinema.
14. Adrift in Tokyo (Satoshi Miki, 2007)
Satoshi Miki’s Adrift in Tokyo is a buddy-comedy that is light in tone, but with just enough darkness beneath the surface to make it interesting. Fumiya is a student who owes large debts to loan-sharks.
When Fukahara shows up to collect a debt which Fumiya cannot pay, Fukahara agrees to renege on the debt if Fumiya agrees to accompany him to the police station where he plans to turn himself in for murder.
As the title suggests, the distance to the police station is long, and the protagonists’ journey turns out to be a whimsically picaresque stroll through Tokyo. The film displays a heart-warming sympathy towards the city’s outsiders throughout. Even when the humour is cartoonish, the evident affection of Miki for his characters shines through.
13. Tokyo.Sora (Hiroshi Ishikawa, 2002)
Tokyo.Sora is about six women trying in various ways to get by in modern-day Tokyo. The title means “Tokyo Skies”, which may serve as a metaphor for that which sees all but passes no judgement, much like the director and his film.
Alternatively it may be a reflection of the characters’ overall blankness or reticence. Tokyo.sora was Ishikawa’s first film, after making commercials. But his film-making style gives no clue to that prior work. Ishikawa fits comfortably into the “genre” (if it is a genre) of contemplative cinema. Long, nearly static shots dominate, with very little dialogue throughout.
Like the best examples of this genre, the slow accumulation of small details gradually build into a vivid totality: in this case a powerful depiction of the alienation and solitude that modern Tokyo has become associated with.
12. Tokyo Godfathers (Satoshi Kon, 2003)
Satoshi Kon died tragically young, but he left behind him a legacy that will continue to influence animators and live-action film-makers for generations to come. Tokyo Godfather was the second film that Kon both wrote and directed. Like much of his work, it is adult in tone and subject matter.
It begins on Christmas Eve in modern day Tokyo, where three homeless companions discover a baby abandoned in the trash. These homeless protagonists are not stereotypical bums – indeed, their diversity mirrors the diversity of Tokyo itself. There’s Gin, a middle-aged alcoholic, Miyuki, a runaway girl, and Hana, a trans woman. They live together in a cardboard hut which they’ve made into a functioning household of sorts.
The film paints a grim picture of Tokyo’s more neglected corners, where it’s rejects struggle to survive. Roger Ebert claimed that a live-action film that dealt with the same themes would be too harrowing to watch. Whether or not this is true, Tokyo Godfathers is indeed a decidedly adult affair.
11. Enter the Void (Gaspar Noe, 2009)
Enter The Void begins with an inauspicious death, that of Oscar, a young drug-dealer, whose corpse lies next to a toilet, covered in blood. It is a beginning that would suggest a police procedural, or a film told in explanatory flashbacks. But this is a Gaspar Noe film, so instead the camera burrows inside Oscar’s body, and for the remainder of the film we are treated to his risen spirit’s POV.
Anyone familiar with Noe’s previous work will certainly be prepared for the explicit sex and violence that this film features in abundance, though they likely won’t be prepared for the film’s fantasmagorical re-imagining of Tokyo night-life.
As with Tokyo Tribes (featured below), the Tokyo we see here is not exactly realistic, but its exaggerations are telling and true to a certain collective imagination of the city. Like Irreversible, this is a film that can inspire nausea in viewers, but it’s a fascinating, innovative achievement in style and storytelling.
10. Tokyo Sonata (Kiyoshi Kurosawa 2008)
Tokyo Sonata represented an unusual foray outside of the horror genre for Kiyoshi Kurosawa. Instead of his usually creepy supernatural narrative (such as Pulse and Cure), Tokyo Sonata is about a very ordinary Japanese family and their gradual breakdown.
Gladly, Kurosawa’s transition to a different genre isn’t the dull failure that it very well could have been. Kurosawa retains much of the sombre and atmospheric tone that defines his more famous films, and this contributes to a sometimes harrowing but never despairing look at contemporary family life in Tokyo.
9. Tokyo 1958 (Hiroshi Teshigahara, 1958)
Tokyo 1958 is a documentary. It’s included in this list because it’s a fascinating and under-seen film co-ordinated by one of Japan’s greatest directors. I say ‘co-ordinated’ because it is in fact a collaboration between eight different film-makers. It was intended to function as a newsreel-style portrait of what was then the world’s largest city.
Despite that intention, the film is remarkably unified in tone, and a vivid portrait emerges of a dynamic city teeming with life. The camera sweeps rapidly from location to location. Images that stand out are the christmas celebrations, and what may or may not be an Elvis impersonation contest.