‘Jokyo Monogatari’

Overcoming the potholes on the road to success


So many Japanese have relocated to Tokyo over the years to make their fortunes — or simply to escape rural poverty — that there is a word to describe the act: jōkyō (which the dictionary defines as “proceeding to the capital [Tokyo]”). Something similar in English would be “New York” as a verb: “I New Yorked in 1992 and have lived there ever since.” The Big Apple looms large in the American imagination, but not that large.

Based on an autobiographical comic by manga artist Rieko Saibara, Toshiyuki Morioka’s “Jokyo Monogatari” (monogatari translates as “story”; the title is a pun on the classic film “Tokyo Monogatari”) relates the coming-to-Tokyo story of Natsumi (Kie Kitano), who begins the film as a compendium of jōkyō cliches: young, innocent, ambitious and dirt poor. She is overjoyed with her first pay envelope from her part-time job at an izakaya (pub), but still has to root through the trash for painting supplies at the art college where she studies.

Then a classmate tells her about a job with higher pay: hostess. Soon after, we see Natsumi being pawed by the crude, fat club manager as a sort of initiation — and saying nothing in protest.

It turns out that our heroine, who seemed so feisty, is something of a pushover. A sketchy guy working at the club, Ryosuke (Sosuke Ikematsu), hits her up for a loan she can’t afford to lend him — and soon installs himself in her apartment as a leaching, loafing boyfriend. Meanwhile, at art school, she ranks at the bottom of the class, despite all her industrious scrawling. Minus a backbone and talent, shouldn’t she just head home before she ends up on the street?

Jokyo Monogatari
Director Toshiyuki Morioka
Run Time 109 minutes
Language Japanese

But Natsumi, like most artists who make it in their unforgiving trade, has a roachlike persistence, as well as a skewed, original take on sex and its absurdities that finally wins her a gig at a publisher of erotica aimed at the same clientele she serves (and fends off) at the club.

This story is taken from the successful Saibara’s own life, so we have some idea of how it will end, though Natsumi’s struggles, both personal and professional, continue. Also, Morioka, who filmed the 2009 “Onnanoko Monogatari (Your Story),” focusing on Natsumi’s Kochi girlhood (she was played there by Eri Fukatsu as an adult and Suzuka Ohgo as a girl), gives her story a gently comic spin while sanding down its rougher edges.

So “Jokyo Monogatari” has the arc of a typical zero-to-hero drama aimed mainly at women of Natsumi’s age — and younger than Saibara, whose own red-light-district experiences unfolded in the 1980s.

The film, though, is atypical in its quiet, knowing insistence on the complexity of its characters and the untidy reality of their lives, even when it upsets formula/feminist expectations. Ryosuke, who is easy to despise, reveals a high-mindedly idealistic side, to the irritation of the down-to-earth Natsumi.

Meanwhile, Fubuki (Asaka Seto), a hard-shelled older hostess with a winsome young daughter (Kanon Tani), becomes Natsumi’s closest friend, though her single-mom situation reminds Natsumi of her own mother, a veteran woman of the nightlife who never had luck with men, beginning with Natsumi’s unreliable, if simpatico, father (Ittoku Kishibe).

These and other characters are interesting enough by and of themselves, but the film would dissolve into a series of episodes (i.e, the structure of the original comic) if not for Kitano’s strong, centering performance as Natsumi. As she did in the 2009 teen romance “Halfway” and the 2010 pop-band drama “Bandage,” Kitano projects a combination of sweetness and grit, as well as an air of apartness, that make her a standout in a sea of cutesy, smiley idols. As Natsumi, she can screw her face up into a chipmunk-like rictus of frustration, but she never mugs away into an approximation of comedy. Instead Kitano creates a character with an inner consistency, even as her behavior swings from fearless highs to craven lows.

Ultimately, the film is less about Natsumi’s professional misfires and triumphs than her personal growth. Like so many from the countryside coming to the big city with little more than hope and drive, she hits bottom — and learns to pick herself up. The people she meets along the way, including the brief encounters that leave a big impression, become her inspiration.

But she can also never forget what you really need to survive in Tokyo — those ¥10,000 bills with the portrait of Yukichi Fukazawa.

Fun fact: Reiko Saibara has a cameo as a leering cleaning lady riding the elevator with an anxious Natsumi, on her way to an interview with a porn publisher.

  • Carl

    I know you were just trying to get into reviewing the movie as quickly as possible without a long linguistic preamble, but just for the record the first written mention in Japan of “jokyo” in the sense of “going up to the capital”–“up” because the emperor lives there, someone you never go “down” to see unless you’re Amaterasu, I suppose–actually dates back to, of all things, the first Portuguese-Japanese dictionary created by the missionaries who came here in the 16th century. Then, of course, to “jokyo” meant to go to Kyoto.