Film / Reviews

'Tokyo-jima (Tokyo Island)'

Lust, power, death and deception — welcome to paradise

by Mark Schilling

It’s a common fantasy — being the only guy on an island of beautiful women. But to be the only woman on an island of men, including the good, the bad and the ugly? Somewhat different, isn’t it?

That is the situation in which Okinawan Kazuko Higa found herself toward the end of World War II, when she was stranded together with nearly 30 Japanese men on the island of Anatahan in the Marianas group. The war ended, but the men refused to admit defeat — and continued to live a primitive life on the island. Higa deftly transferred her affections from suitor to suitor, while several died competing for her favors.

Higa escaped from the island in 1950 and three years later Josef von Sternberg, the directorial muse of Marlene Dietrich, made the daringly experimental (and commercially disastrous) “Anatahan” based on her story. Then, in 1956, the Shintoho studio released Toshio Shimura’s “Onna Shinju-o no Fukushu (Revenge of the Pearl Queen),” a thriller also inspired by the Anatahan incident, starring voluptuous new discovery Michiko Maeda as the heroine and featuring the first-ever all-nude shot of an actress in a Japanese film.

Tokyo-jima (Tokyo Island)
Director Makoto Shinozaki
Run Time 129 minutes
Language Japanese

Now indie veteran Makoto Shinozaki (“Okaeri,” “Wasurerarenu Hitobito”) has made “Tokyo-jima (Tokyo Island),” which is based on a best-seller of the same title by Natsuo Kirino, but is yet another version of the Anatahan story.

In contrast to von Sternberg’s stagy drama and Shimura’s lurid treatment, Shinozaki takes a black comic approach that winks at the sexual element, while putting human frailties and idiocies front and center.

“Tokyo-jima” aims to entertain with the wiles of its middle-aged heroine, Kiyoko (Tae Kimura), but its way of doing so is mildly flaky, as though the experience of filming people slowly going stir-crazy on a rock in the middle of nowhere also addled the brains of its makers. But Shinozaki, working from a script by Tomoko Aizawa, delivers pointed observations on the sad state of Japanese young manhood in particular and humanity in general.

The film wastes no time with preliminaries, disposing of the 43-year-old heroine’s fateful journey and near-fatal shipwreck on a lush tropical island in a brief sequence of voiced-over shots. Seeing Kiyoko casually kill and skin a snake, while her hubby obsessively draws pictures of Japanese food on a map, we can immediately tell who is winning the battle for survival.

When the husband plunges (is pushed?) over a cliff, Kiyoko is left alone — until 16 young male “freeters” (temp workers) are shipwrecked on the island. She becomes the “wife” of their brutish leader Kasukabe (Ryuto Yamaguchi), and acts like queen of the land. But when six Chinese castaways appear and she sees the wild pig they have captured and slaughtered, Kiyoko susses that they are a different breed from her ineffective, immature countrymen. Kasukabe soon meets a mysterious end — and Kiyoko is up for grabs again.

This time, the freeters, now divided into “tribal villages” named after Tokyo neighborhoods ([Ike]Bukuro, [Shin]Juku and Shibuya), come up with a nonviolent method for deciding her next “husband”: Draw lots. Even for the accommodating Kiyoko, this is a bit much.

But she overcomes this difficulty and the ones that follow, wearing the mask of feminine charm. The only one onto her game is Watanabe (Yosuke Kubozuka), a crazy-as-a-fox loner who tells her she is no queen, but just another obasan (middle-aged woman). What happens when the others get wise?

Kimura, who made her breakthrough as a depressed wife in Ryosuke Hashiguchi’s 2008 “Gururi no Koto (All Around Us),” plays Kiyoko as, not a canny manipulator, but a rather ordinary woman who rises to the occasion — and occasionally stumbles. This approach grounds what could have been a fey comic exercise in imperfect everyday reality.

There is a problem with the casting of Kimura as Kiyoko, however: Buff, bronzed and beautiful, she does not look like a middle-aged obasan in the least, though the film’s young target audience may not agree.

Also, Shinozaki rounds off what that audience would probably consider the story’s more unattractive edges, beginning with the male sexual appetite. The Japanese men, in the main, are soshoku (herbivorous) types who would rather read books, string beads and engage in same-sex frolics than pursue Kiyoko.

Even her “husbands” of the moment, from the gentle amnesiac G.M. (Seiji Fukushi) to the bluff Chinese leader Yang (Ryushin Tei), are hardly heroic types in any classic sense, Western or Eastern. The film, however, offers hope for its heroine: Despite the general lameness of the male species, other women arrive, offering sanity-preserving companionship followed by cuddly new life and life-affirming inspiration. Who is the daddy? In “Tokyo-jima,” with its hell turned unjudgmental paradise in the Pacific, who cares?