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March 16, 2009

Movie Review – Tokyo Boy (Tokyo Shonen) (2008)

by Master Pillow

Tokyo Boy (Tokyo Shonen) is a rather minimalist yet emotionally heartfelt psychological/thriller/romance that once again displays young rising starlet Maki Horikita’s impressive acting repertoire this time in a dual role as a girl who is suffering from split personalities.

Horikita is Minato, your typical demure Japanese girl who goes about her daily business working in a nondescript convenience store seemingly content to live a life of banality. Orphaned from young due to the death of her parents in a violent car crash, Minato spends her days trudging through her job and then going home to live with her grandmother. Her daily routine is interrupted by the arrival of Shu Karasawa (Takuya Ishida), a bookish yet honorable fellow who one day causes her to inadvertently damage a rice ball but in a chivalrous gesture he pays for it anyways so as to spare her from using her own funds to compensate the store. Like all romances, sometimes it’s the little things that matter and Minato is instantly transfixed at this apparent knight in shining armor and soon after the two are seen going out on a date. It’s obvious that the two are kindred spirits and are highly attracted to one another yet Minato also suffers from severe black outs where she can’t remember what happened to her for many hours.

In Shu she feels like she’s met someone whom she can openly show her emotions to and informs him about her odd medical condition yet also imparts intimate details about her life most important being that ever since the accident involving her parents when she was emotionally distressed that she’s been in mailing contact with a boy named Night who provides her stability and counseling. However, she’s never met him in person even though she’s tried many times to schedule a rendezvous.

As the days roll by Minato is constantly surprised and sometimes frustrated by events that happen around her all of which are related to stymieing her blossoming relationship with Shu. She takes a picture of him on her cellphone only to find both it and his contact information is erased the next day. Other times she spends a wondrous day with Shu as the two bond only to find him distant and distraught the next day as if something momentous has occurred that is driving a wedge between them. Finally, she manages to confront him and as the two eat awkwardly in a restaurant he breaks the news that he’s found a girlfriend and is breaking up with her. As she cries he bolts the restaurant leaving her broken and defeated. Completely exasperated and emotionally shot she writes a letter to Night and pleads to meet him as he’s been her steadying rock all these years but much to her chagrin he does not show at the intended time and place. Taking matters into her own hands she goes to Night’s mailing address only to find a run down and abandoned dilapidated building and to her horror comes to the realization by staring into a cracked mirror that she is in fact Night before passing out on the floor.

Tokyo Boy feels incredibly intimate precisely because there are so few players involved with Minato and Shu being in 100% of all the scenes. The movie starts out as clearly a tale about the blossoming love between two characters and the first act certainly feels as if we’re watching a rote romantic drama play out with quiet piano motifs and demure eye contact. Then, almost as if on a dime, the whole movie shifts into overdrive as the two are about to kiss when all of a sudden Minato violently pushes him away and strides off seemingly in indignation leaving Shu thinking he was being too forward in his approach. What quickly becomes clear is that other issues are involved concerning Minato and we as the audience are made painfully aware of this when she realizes that Night is in fact another part of herself.

The movie is basically broken down into four separate acts, the first three centering on a different character yet each one showing roughly the same events from differing points of view. The last act attempts to resolve all the disparate plot elements. Think Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon or the lamentable Vantage Point for comparison. At first this repetition seems superfluous as director Shunichi Hirano and screenplay writer Mutsuki Watanabe go over the same material but at least they have the smarts to not play every instance back at full length, giving us just the important snippets and filling in the blanks. Thus we see Minato literally changing into Night just as Shu is about to kiss her and we the audience instantly realize that the protective personality has taken over in order to push him away.

Minato, the sweet girl with the tortured past is the focus of the first act and hers is probably the plainest in terms of narrative as she’s portrayed as your typical girl experiencing the joys of her first love after years of solitude. Horikita has this archetype nailed down and might as well be playing in her sleep as she makes Minato into a flustered young girl who gets a bounce in her step whenever she is near or even thinking about Shu. There’s a real earnestness and youthful exuberance in her and whenever Horikita flashes her patented smile the audience can’t help but feel her emotional state of mind. The only element to Minato that is slightly off base stems from the fact that she doesn’t seem to be overtly concerned about her blackouts, treating them as blasé and another facet of her life. Never having suffered from such attacks I have no personal frame of reference but the very fact that you awake with no recollection about the past would surely be disconcerting to most.

The second act focuses on the same set of events told from Shu’s point of view while the third presents us Night’s take on things. Though Minato and Shu are pleasant enough characters the movie really only hits its emotional stride with Night and “his” inner turmoil.

Where Tokyo Boy excels though is in clearly delineating the two personalities of Minato and Night yet it adds a wrinkle to the otherwise archaic plot device as we begin to realize that not only is Night taking on the protective persona but that he actually yearns for a male body precisely because he’s also in love with his female self. Full props go to Maki Horikita for her layered and incredibly well toned performance as both personas especially when she’s Night. There’s a tendency to overplay such a sexual change that usually stems from comedic offerings and Horikita is no exception to that rule as she’s done this before in the silly yet sincere Hanazakari No Kimitachi e Jdrama where she pretended to be a boy in order to get close to the guy she loved. However, that role was played fully for laughs but here in Tokyo Boy she goes way into the dark recesses of the mind and presents Night as a tragic figure who yearns to protect the girl he loves.

This successful transformation comes off eerily here as Horikita makes her male persona a sullen brooding loaner although “his” all-black outfits are a bit too obvious. Still, director Shunichi Hirano certainly helps by swathing her in angular shadows as if he’s shooting the latest Friday the 13th horror movie. Horikita, who is no stranger to that genre, is blessed or cursed depending on your point of view with having facial features that are so easily realized in the horror genre – just the way dark shadows play across her visage hallowing her eyes and accentuating her dour mood makes a stunning visual feast. Nevertheless, that’s actually camera trickery which is easy to do when Night is glowering in the dark but what is surprising is that Horikita is equally, if not more convincing when it’s bright as day. Viewers will easily be drawn to her portrayal of the man stuck in a woman’s body as she successfully buries her girly tendencies to some netherworld. To say the movie works only because of Horikita’s performance is an understatement that has never been truer and one wishes she’d spend more time in dramatic roles than hamming things up with dramas that are nothing more than exaggerated live-action manga.

By contrast Takuya Ishida as Shu has the thankless task of playing second fiddle here and though he gives an earnest performance as Minato’s love interest he’s relegated to giving various looks of surprise whenever his girlfriend changes personalities. Even when presented with the no-win argument from his conveniently revealed brain surgeon father he falls back to seemingly looking more puzzled than inherently hurt.

This in turn hurts the fourth and final act as director Shunichi Hirano makes the almost fatal mistake of accelerating matters to almost absurd proportions. It doesn’t take a brain surgeon or rocket scientist to realize that multiple personality disorders are no joke and take a seriously long time in therapy to resolve. In some cases, it just plainly fails. However, here, for the sake of the lean running time, the filmmakers decide to emulate Usain Bolt and sprint the 100 meters to the finish line in record time which is great if you are an Olympic athlete but not so much when you are dealing with complex psychodrama.

Although one can certainly understand the thought process here everything is wrapped up in such a pretty ribbon box of sweetness that it almost devalues the charged atmosphere of the first three acts. The way in which the less assertive Shu manages to confront the incensed Night and rock his underlying morality works as well as Captain James T. Kirk outdueling a computer in simple logic that results in it self-destructing — simply not convincing in the least and a bit of an affront to those who actually are in this field of work.

It might have served the movie better by extending it another thirty or so minutes as it would have given more time to delve into the subject matter of someone coping with dual personalities, especially one as fractured as this. Night is infinitely more interesting to watch than either Minato or Shu so his condensed epiphany doesn’t ring very true. Still, truncated finale aside, Tokyo Boy is a minor triumph for its leading lady and augers well for her acting future.

*** out of ****

2008, Japan, 95 Minutes, MF Box
Directed by Shunichi Hirano
Screenplay by Mutsuki Watanabe
Original Music by Kôji Endô
Cinematography by Takayanagi Tomoyuki
Film Editing by Yuriko Sano

Minato Fujiki / Knight: Maki Horikita
Shu Karasawa: Takuya Ishida
Kikue Fujiki: Reiko Kusamura
Yoji Karasawa: Mitsuru Hirata

© 2009 The Galactic Pillow

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