Stylish and oblique far beyond the point of pretentiousness, Katsuki Kuroyanagi’s The City uses gritty black & white and evocative urban settings in an attempt to create drama its script never much tries to deliver. Wandering the streets of Tokyo’s Shibuya neighborhood offers visual intrigue, but that novelty quickly wears off as a viewer starts to suspect how little else there is to see here. Import value is nil, though the pic may find a few supporters on the fest circuit.
Characters are unnamed, and even the credits (in which most of the actors go by single names, as in: “The Punk: Leo; The Eliminator: Ryota; The Revenger: Yaco”) leave much room for interpretation. So readers are asked to bear with improvised character names.
The Bottom Line
A monotonous, empty exercise in style.
The movie shifts focus between two seeming protagonists, whom we might call Goatee and Big Hair. Its action stretches over four years, though once you’ve pieced together the minimal plot (it takes an hour to get even slim clues about why anything is happening), you might wonder how it all took so long. Nevertheless, Kuroyanagi expects you to be so riveted that every other scene delivers a slow-burn timestamp, with the year going up first, for no guessable reason, before the rest appears, a la “1/29/2017 22:43 pm.” (Isn’t the whole point of 24-hour timekeeping that you don’t use “am/pm”?)
Much of the first hour revolves around Goatee going to great lengths trying to obtain a certain antique model of Colt handgun. (If there’s ever a hint about why that model of gun is needed, this viewer missed it.) His hunt requires the help of a guy known as “Liquor Boy” who recently changed his name to “Fish Boy” — a rare-goods dealer who won’t do anything unless you bring him obscure, vintage gaming devices in return. It also involves a lot of time interacting with women who stand on the street handing out packets of face tissues. (Such packets, with advertisements on them, are a not-uncommon means of business promotion in Japan.) He wanders the Shibuya district, past love hotels and tiny specialty bars, as Kuroyanagi tries to wow us with insert close-ups of street grime.
But even the contrived, overly quirky details soon peter out, and focus shifts to Big Hair, a disheveled older man whose own mission is hampered by badly injured hands. We watch, for instance, as he tries to communicate the assistance he needs from a deaf bike mechanic: He hands him a design for something and insists “just make it,” seeming not to care if his words are understood. (Which seems to be the filmmaker’s attitude as well.)
Style (and oppressively urban-gloomy sound design and music) substitutes for storytelling for so long that few viewers will care when, an hour in, a flashback shows us the 2017 killing that set all this in motion. Is this miniature gang war really all about an innocent man that was killed? A bleach-blonde streetwalker who has seemed to be a minor character may in fact be the plot’s main driver. Or maybe not: Near the very end, we meet a better dressed gangster referred to as God, who presumably has some connection to the hood with God Son tattooed on his belly. Anyone still awake at this point is welcome to reinterpret the whole affair as a Christian allegory, which would make about as much sense as any other reading.