“I got a gig at the club in Ikebukuro,” Bob tells his friend Lucy during a hike into the mountains. “The band is really the best musicians I have ever played with. That is what I love about Japan—you get a second chance here.” Bob is a Brit running a Karaoke bar in 1989 Tokyo who dreams of a more serious career in music. He’s just a minor character (played by an underused Jack Huston) in Earthquake Bird and just one of many trying to start afresh in Tokyo. He introduces recently arrived Lily Bridges (Riley Keough) to long-time resident Lucy Fly (Alicia Vikander), whose name in its original Swedish pronunciation sounds just like the English word “flee.” Even Teiji (Naoki Kobayashi), the photographer who forms the third corner of the love triangle with Lily and Lucy, has come to Tokyo from Kagoshima in the rural south. “I didn’t like the girls in my hometown,” he says when asked about his dating history, although his excuse doesn’t quite ring true.
But this is Lucy’s story, and Vikander’s movie. The actress is in every single scene of the film, for which she not only learned to speak Japanese quite well but also learned to play the cello. We meet Lucy is pouring herself into her work as a translator, writing Japanese subtitles in pencil for another American film set in Japan, Black Rain, when the police arrive at the office and ask her to come in to answer a few questions. Lily was reported missing some time ago, and now a body has been found. The good cop/bad cop duo (Kazuhiro Muroyama and Ken Yamamura) see Lucy and uncooperative, when in fact she answers their questions, and only their questions, with exacting precision. “Five years and two months,” she says without taking time to think when asked how long she has been in Japan. Another time she informs the officers that she didn’t lie, but that they simply asked the question in the wrong tense. It is this rigid attitude that brings back the past Lucy is so desperate to flee, both her recent past with Teiji and Lily, and her more distant and more painful memories from Sweden, and the majority of the story unfolds in flashbacks.
Wash Westmoreland is probably the perfect director for this, having spent a year in Japan in the 1980s. I happen to know Tokyo well, having lived in the city for nearly 20 years, and was able to spot the usual sins of geography that have cropped in foreign films set in the city since at You Only Live Twice. A group of characters walk through the brightly lit streets of Shinjuku that were used on the final scene of Lost in Translation, and go down into a club that is nearly a mile away. But Westmoreland and his team work to make the Japanese settings authentic. The late ‘80s setting could have invited gags about big hair and clunky payphones, but the few reference to the time period help fill out the characters. “I called a girlfriend back home and talked for like, 20 minutes,” Lily says in one of her early conversations with Lucy, “and it wound up costing like a hundred bucks.” “It’s better not to call,” Lucy is quick to say. “It is good to be isolated.” When that hike into the mountains leads four characters to a stunning view of Mount Fuji, instead of pulling out smartphones to capture the moment for Instagram, they simply realize they haven’t brought a camera.
A sequence featuring the Ondeko drumming festival on Sado Island, is especially effective at using the rhythms to underscore Lucy’s increasing disorientation, paranoia and jealousy. After this masterful scene and a climax that is both surprising and mirror Lucy’s long-held anxieties, the quite resolution leaves a bit to be desired.
Vikander, Westmoreland and Kobayashi were on hand to present the film to the audience at the Tokyo International Film Festival, and surprised the audience by making their comments in both Japanese and English. This, as well as the film itself, is a sign of a level of international film production that has rarely been reached.