Tokyo Tower – Japan, 2007
In acting, they say it is better to show than to tell. This means, for example, that it is better to look pained than it is to simply say you are pained, yet to do this, it helps to have enough time to show something properly. Joji Matsuoka’s 2007 film adaptation of Lily Franky’s popular novel Tokyo Tower, which tells the story of a young man named Masaya and his mother Eiko, fails because it reduces what took eleven episodes to tell on television to two hours and twenty minutes. The result is a film that feels incredibly rushed and one that relies entirely too much on its narrator to tell viewers what has occurred rather than taking the time to show them. In one of the worst instances of the film’s tendency to tell instead of show, we see Masaya sitting in his friend’s bar next to a young lady he is seeing for the first time. Normally, a film would show us their first awkward conversation or the slow but steady growth of their relationship. Tokyo Tower does neither. Instead, we simple hear Masaya say that he got a new girlfriend. This is the character that Eiko (played by Kirin Kiki in Eiko’s later years and Yayaho Uchida in her younger ones) grows so fond of that she hopes she will become her daughter-in-law. However, nothing we see between Masaya (Jo Odagiri) and his girlfriend Mizue (Takako Matsu) justifies such hopes.
The film also speeds through or entirely skips over key parts of Masaya’s life. At one point, we watch as he goes from financial hardship to homelessness to part-time employment in the blink of an eye. We also watch as Masaya goes from being on the verge of dropping out of school to having graduated in about thirty seconds. It is as if we’re watching a highlight reel just so that we know the bare facts of Masaya’s life. The problem is that this technique gives the audience very little time to establishment a connection with Masaya or to empathize with him. In another part of the film, we’re told – there’s that word again - that Masaya’s friends think of Eiko as a mother-figure, but again very little screen time is devoted to actually showing how this came about. At one point, we see a large group sitting around Masaya’s dinner table, yet the film has not taken the time to inform viewers just who these characters are. It’s as if screen writer Suzuki Matsuo is assuming that viewers have already read the book.
Matsuoka devotes most of the film to Eiko’s battle with cancer and the changing roles that that fight necessitates. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with this strategy, and the scenes in which Eiko struggles to cope with the effects of both cancer and chemotherapy are indeed powerful. However, the choice relegates all of the other parts of Eiko’s life to brief scenes and quick flashbacks, and it denies her character the chance to fully develop. We see her dance a few times, but not enough times for us to understand how important dancing and singing are to her. We see a few uncomfortable scenes involving Eiko and her husband but not enough pleasant ones to understand why she remains friendly toward him over the years, especially given the fact that she hits him with a frying pan during the film’s opening scene. The film also neglects Eiko’s relationship with her mother and her sister and does not include enough tender moments between her and Masaya as he is growing up.
Another problem is that the film portrays Eiko as a smoker, which the television series does not. While it is not uncommon for women to smoke in films and it is possible that the character Eiko is based on smoked in real life, the sad truth is that audiences are less likely to see a cancer diagnosis as a significant tragedy if a character smokes. They are more likely to see it as an unfortunate consequence of an action someone willingly engaged in.
The film also makes use of the always awkward technique of having its main character speak to a younger version of himself at key points in the film, as well as to his mother’s younger self at another. Having characters come to decisions in this way has always struck me as a form of cinematic laziness. It would have been stronger to have Masaya’s maturity be based on conversations or careful, thoughtful consideration. However, that would have required time, and Tokyo Tower does not have enough of it. What we have therefore are all of the most important events of Lily Franky’s novel but not the back stories that made these events so moving. Without the back stories or the build up to explain these events, the film simply feels hurried, as if it is trying to do too much too quickly, which unfortunately is exactly what it is doing. (on DVD in Region 3)
2 and a half stars
*Tokyo Tower is in Japanese with English subtitles.
*Tokyo Tower won Best Film, Best Screenplay, Best Director, Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Kaoru Kobayashi as Masaya’s father), and Best Actress in a Leading Role (Kirin Kiri) at the Awards of the Japanese Academy.