Unlike the booming fame and splendor of Tokyo’s Shinjuku and Shibuya districts, sister neighborhood Shimokitazawa is most well-known among the young locals for its trendy hipster/bohemian lifestyle. Filled with live music venues, avant-garde theaters, cozy cafés, amiable hangout joints, clothing boutiques, and record shops, the rapidly-evolving Shimokitazawa offers not just the milieu of Rikiya Imaizumi’s Over the Town, but in a way, also serves as its main character. Imaizumi, who has quite a reputation (particularly among homegrown Japanese young cinephiles) for his depictions of modern-day romance and the myriad pleasures and hardships of contemporary relationships, returns to the well once more with his latest effort. Here, Imaizumi follows the twenty-something, awkward ex-musician/bookworm/man-boy protagonist, Ao Arakawa (Ryuya Wakaba), who works as a sales associate at a second-hand clothing shop in Shimokitazawa. After his girlfriend Yuki (Moeka Hoshi) breaks up with him, admitting she’s been cheating on him, we see Ao aimlessly walking the streets in a bit of a heartbroken, flâneurish manner, idly spending time in different places or just reading his books here and there. The shape the film takes going forward, then, is as a loosely episodic, interconnected network of random encounters between Ao and different strangers and friends — especially the young women he encounters, including Machiko (Minori Hagiwara), a newbie filmmaker who asks him to play in her graduation film (winkingly titled “Sleep in Reading”), which instills a sort of meta quality to Imaizumi’s work (a seeming trend in many recent Japanese cinematic efforts). This metafilmic wrinkle, working alongside the bold presence of the second-hand shops located in a quarter where the new constantly dissolves the old, offers a precise metaphor for everything the film seeks to capture: a time and place where not only the objects, but also the human subjects and their affairs, emotions, feelings, and imaginations, are of a recycled, pre-consumed mode. For Ao, it takes a small-scale, urban journey to realize the fact that no imaginary or ideal conception of love is possible in the real world.
Imaizumi’s vivid aesthetic relies upon a very unadorned, hyper-realist style to capture the intersubjectivity of his juvenile characters through mainly distant, fixed shots with no interrupting cuts, dedicated fully to the naturalistic dialogues that occasion between these people and which mostly revolve around various aspects of culture, art, and relationships. But of perhaps more salience in Over the Town is the very subtle manner in which Imaizumi renders his film’s lo-fi temperament into a soft, day-dreaming-y ambiance wherein the cringe-comedy quality of the film manifests itself through overtly tongue-in-cheek humor. Unfortunately, the problem is that as the film pushes forward, it begins to gradually disengage the viewer as much of the film’s “action” — mundane conversations, encounters built on naturalistic performances, and the delivery of deadpan jokes — become repetitive and flat, or at least lose their initial freshness and delicate touch. Understandably, Imaizumi has tried to draw some resemblance between his raw, scruffy style and the character of Ao, who across the two-hour runtime never appears as more than an inactive and awkward bystander. That’s to say that Imaizumi’s excessive insistence on neutral visuals and low-key, mumblecore-esque rom-dram texture depletes the film of energy far too soon to remain more engaging than the series of tedious “talk therapy” sessions. This also works to sap the mood and atmosphere of Shimokitazawa which the director so wants to celebrate: to do it justice, Over the Town would have needed much more zip, like in the way that Woody Allen cherishes his beloved NYC on screen, or in the exhilarating but playful manner that Hong Sang-soo explores the nooks of Seoul. It’s evident (and respectable enough) that Imaizumi commits to his deliberately relaxed ethos (though maybe a bit too much), and his down-to-earth aesthetic lands for a while. But ultimately, the film could stand to do with a little bit more of Ao’s idealistic dreaming, as viewers are left to wonder how far above its middling aspirations Over the Town could have risen if it had dispensed with its indulgent, fatiguing realism.
Published as part of NYAFF 2021 — Dispatch 2.