Tokyo Park: Film Review

Insubstantial Japanese romance is as unengagingly flat as its title.

Auteur Shinji Aoyama aims squarely for the lucrative young female Japanese demographic with this soap operatic tale.

LOCARNO — The decline of Japanese auteur Shinji Aoyama continues to accelerate with the limp romance Tokyo Park, an insipid trifle that somehow stretches a wispy plot close to the two-hour mark. Aiming squarely for the lucrative young female Japanese demographic, it flopped badly on its recent domestic release, despite the presence of pin-up Haruma Miura in the central role.

Overseas prospects consist solely of the film festival circuit, where Aoyama, always more revered abroad than at home, still retains a certain amount of recognition and prestige. Indeed Tokyo Park  (Tokyo Koen, sometimes transliterated as Tokyo Kouen), competing in Locarno's main competition, was generously awarded a special Golden Leopard, presumably to honor Aoyama's whole career.
It is, however, over a decade since his epic, stately study of grief, Eureka,landed the critics' prize and admiring reviews at Cannes 2000, and more than five years since his boldly impressive experimental feature My God, My God, Why Hast Thou Forsaken Me? (2005).Crickets (2006) and Sad Vacation  (2007) were much more tepidly received, and after a four-year hiatus Aoyama now returns with what is by far his most mainstream, conventional movie to date.

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The story revolves around Koji (Miura), a handsome, easygoing lad in his early twenties with aspirations towards becoming a professional photographer. In between stints working as a sophisticated jazz café, he spends much of his free time wandering Tokyo's many parks where his main focus is on attractive women. He's spotted and quizzed about this by successful dentist Matsushima (Hiroshi 'Yo' Takahashi), who promptly — and implausibly — hires him to spy on his meekly demure wife Yurika (Haruka Igawa) during her daily visits to the parks with her small child.
In between these assignments (which he executes with more enthusiasm than detective ability), Aoyama shows Koji at the apartment he shares with his hermit-like, video-game-obsessed best friend Hiro (Shota Sometani) and at work, where he's frequently visited by his much older stepsister Misaki (Manami Konishi) and by Hiro's ex, perky cinephile Miyu (Nana Eikura). Gradually some unlikely, surprising revelations emerge including an unexpected metaphysical twist before the halfway mark.
But these promising narrative developments are handled with the insipid blandness of a daytime soap-opera, lacking anything resembling urgency, edge or originality. It doesn't help that, in a movie so expressly concerned with images and their power, Yuta Tsukinaga's digital cinematography is picturesquely banal, nor that the jazzy score (by Aoyama and Isao Yamada) is jauntily intrusive. We're certainly a very long way from, say, Michelangelo Antonioni'sBlow-Up (1966), still the best big-screen examination of life through a lens.

Adapting Yukiya Shoji's novel, Aoyama — himself a noted novelist — can't find a way to successfully translate the characters from page to screen. Igawa's Yurika, who has no dialogue, is little more than a smiling cipher; while pop-star-turned-actor Miura is easy on the eye but incapable of fully fleshing out the emotional development of his two-dimensional character.

Only the hyperactive Miyu really registers thanks to Eikura's live-wire performance. As someone admiringly remarks, "What makes her terrific is her eccentricity, after all" - and it's just a shame Tokyo Park couldn't have picked up just a little more of that elusive, oddball charm.


Venue: Locarno Film Festival
Production company: d-rights Inc. (in co-production with Showgate, Amuse, Nikkatsu, Hakuhodo, Memory-Tech, Yahoo Japan)
Cast: Haruma Miura, Nana Eikura, Manami Konishi, Haruka Igawa, Hiroshi 'Yo' Takahashi, Shota Sometani
Director/screenwriter: Shinji Aoyama
Based on the book by: Yukiya Shoji
Producers: Hiroaki Saito, Yasushi Yamazaki
Director of photography: Yuta Tsukinaga
Production designer: Tsuyoshi Shimizu

Costume designer: Nami Shinozuka
Music: Shinji Aoyama, Isao Yamada
Editor: Hidemi Lee
Sales: Showgate, Tokyo
No rating, 118 minutes