Many Tokyoites believe there are two versions of the city: Version A is where the Japanese inhabit — defined by cramped spaces, excessively long working hours and totally functional toilets. Version B is the Tokyo known to non-Japanese, which by all accounts is ambivalent, exotic and infinitely more romantic.

The majority of Japanese Tokyoites go through their lives steeped in the realities of Version A, slightly aware of but not really familiar with the goings-on in Version B, except via movies about Tokyo by foreign directors. True, we don’t get as much attention as New York or Paris, but over the years, a sizable number of auteurs have taken a crack at the city, from Wim Wenders (“Notebook on Cities and Clothes”) to Sofia Coppola (“Lost in Translation”) to Michel Gondry (“Tokyo!”).

The latest addition to that auspicious list is Isabel Coixet (“My Life Without Me,” “The Secret Life of Words”), who has painted a picture of Tokyo that’s so knowing and so intimate, you’re tempted to think this city must have been the stage of a torrid love affair. For once, a Western filmmaker has composed gorgeous Tokyo cityscapes that are not touristy, not curious, not condescending and mercifully not phony.

Night-Tokyo-Day (Map of the Sounds of Tokyo)
Director Isabel Coixet
Run Time 98 minutes
Language Japanese and English (subtitled in Japanese)
Opens Opens Sept. 11, 2010

Through Coixet’s lens, Tokyo becomes a place of wonder because, apparently, she thinks its wondrous. In the film’s best moments, A merges with B in a beautifully choreographed kiss.

Having said that, “Map of the Sounds of Tokyo” (Japan title: “Night-Tokyo-Day”) is much more rewarding to look at than to contemplate as a story. The opening scene is full of foreboding: A group of businessmen (Western and Japanese) are sitting at a long, low table on which young Russian women recline naked, palm leaves holding sushi placed strategically on their bodies. The foreigners eat with appetite and take photos with their cell phones; some of the Japanese are disgusted and uncomfortable, forcibly reminding themselves that this is work.

And then the scene changes abruptly and the Russian women, liberated from sushi-girl duties, wash themselves down with innumerable lemon slices (the best antidote against the smells of fish and vinegar).

Lemons are one of the symbolic props here, and despite its title the film plays on a collection of sensations: Smell has just as persuasive and important a role as sound. For Ryu (Rinko Kikuchi), who works the night shift in the Tsukiji wholesale market, lemons are a dire necessity, and she always has some stashed in her locker. From 7:30 p.m. to six in the morning, Ryu cleans, cuts and transports fish from one end of the market to the other; Coixet has a soft spot for women engaged in manual labor (her two previous flicks featured factory workers), and her gaze on Ryu is a nice blend of matter-of-factness and genuine empathy.

When Ryu gets home in the morning (she uses the women-only carriage on the train), she can only bring herself to eat strawberry mochi (glutinous rice) cakes, microwaved and sitting two to a plate. Coixet’s understanding here — both of Ryu and of fish market workers — is uncanny, and when Ryu finally brings herself to relax and close her eyes on her bed, it’s a lovely moment, exquisite in its loneliness.

If “Map . . . ” had been a series of vignettes, this would, perhaps, have worked better. But the story, with a hefty tragedy as its centerpiece, feels patchy and derivative. There are unmistakable echoes of Alejandro Gonzalez In~arittu’s “Babel,” which also starred Kikuchi in Tokyo; at times, “Map . . . ” takes on the dimensions of a sequel to that movie, with Kikuchi (who played a teenage deaf girl in “Babel”) grown up and burdened with yet more life/sexual hangups.

The narration by the deeply resonant Min Tanaka helps, but doesn’t quite cancel out the damage, and the movie seems too dependent on Kikuchi, with all the other characters flitting in and out of her existence and waiting for her to take the initiative. Besides her job at the market, Ryu is also a contract killer (groan), and she makes the fatal, hopelessly cliched mistake of falling for her target.

That this happens to be David (Cesar Award winner Sergi Lopez) — a wine merchant from Spain whose Japanese girlfriend has just committed suicide — is a bit much. Their meetings in a love hotel followed by jaunts to ramen restaurants and walks in Shimokitazawa alleys smack of foreign Tokyo fantasy, transporting the film right over to Tokyo Version B. There are no fluorescent lights to be seen anywhere, with Ryu and David always bathed in subdued hues of pale orange and muted blacks. Those of us in Tokyo A, of course, have no such luck. Least of all in ramen restaurants.

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