Having attempted something similar with 2009′s Live Tape, director Tetsuaki Matsue and singer-songwriter Kenta Maeno reteam for more of the same: Namely, a tour of various neighbourhoods in present day Tokyo to the sound of the latter’s intrepid vocals and guitar. Set over just one night, mere months on from the earthquake and resultant tsunami that shook Japan in March, 2011, Tokyo Drifter finds the nation’s capital city shadowed in mourning as the once dazzling neons and flashing television screens are smothered to preserve precious power.
It’s a startling sight, completely at odds with Tokyo’s flashy reputation and undiminished by the decidedly low-fi equipment used to record the duo’s musical journey through the darkened streets of Ginza and Shibuya. Opening with an announcement that reads ”Latest news on the tsunami situation…” (and followed by a gloomy shot of the Japanese flag that suddenly cuts to black), Tokyo Drifter quickly does away with written instruction in order to focus on Maeno as he tunes his instrument and begins to play from the centre of a busy but jarringly oblivious traffic island. Making his way through a variety of locations and a whole album’s worth of material, the unsteady camera stalks Maeno whether he is singing, travelling or simply eating his dinner, from 19:35 to 05:34 the next morning.
Considering he is often mired in darkness, usually facing the other way and rarely seen out from behind a pair of sunglasses, it is surprising just how compelling a screen presence Kenta Maeno actually is. An experimental and conceptual film more than a traditional narrative or conventional documentary, there is very little in Tokyo Drifter aside from underlit shop fronts and extinguished store signs to act as a distraction from the film’s wandering guitarist, putting a fair amount of pressure on everyone involved to keep the audience engaged over the film’s admittedly slight 72 minute running time. Maeno runs the full gamut of emotions as his chosen songs alternate between sweet laments, angry denouncements and hopeful celebrations. In the absence of any real direction or aim, the one night structure and melodic multiplicity carry the project through to the end with verve and aplomb.
Matsue, on the other hand, makes the most of his limited equipment, cutting haphazardly yet effectively to best capture the haunting sight of a darkened Tokyo and the talented efforts of his meandering musician. Shooting many scenes through windows, from separate vehicles and around fellow pedestrians, the director manages to piece together a functioning film without losing the spontaneity or fluidity that was perhaps better represented with their previous collaboration’s single shot format. It is a technical – if not necessarily cinematic - achievement, and there are many memorable shots, particularly involving a darkened H&M doorway, the faint glint of Louis Vuitton lettering and the final moments of much-missed daylight.
Unfortunately, Tokyo Drifter‘s form robs it of both focus and force. It’s difficult to decide what the film’s primary message might be, so reliant is Matsue on his star’s loose lyrics and wide-ranging subject matter to imbue proceedings with any theme or meaning. As an experiment it is both novel, evocative and – up to a point – successful; a love/hate letter to Tokyo that comments on the 2011 tragedy whilst also dealing with Maeno’s own demons and doubts, to the complete and utter indifference of passers-by. I’m just not sure that it is anything more.