Stylish and slanting way beyond the point of pretentiousness, Katsuki Kuroyanagi’s The city uses gritty black-and-white and evocative urban settings in an effort to create drama whose script never tries to deliver much. Wandering the streets of Tokyo’s Shibuya neighborhood offers visual intrigue, but that novelty quickly wears off as a viewer begins to suspect how little else there is to see here. Import value is nil, although the photo can find a few supporters on the party circuit.
The characters are unnamed, and even the credits (where most actors use separate names, as in: “The Punk: Leo; The Eliminator: Ryota; The Revenger: Yaco”) leave a lot of room for interpretation. Readers are thus asked to put up with improvised character names.
It comes down to
A monotonous, empty exercise in style.
The film shifts focus between two apparent protagonists, who we might call Goatee and Big Hair. The action spans four years, but once you’ve put together the minimal plot (it takes an hour to get even minor clues as to why something is happening), you might wonder how it all took so long. . Nevertheless, Kuroyanagi expects you to be so enthralled that every other scene delivers a slow-burning timestamp, with the year going up first, for no reason, before the rest shows up, a la “01/29/2017 10:43 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 to get his hands on a particular antique model of the Colt pistol. (If there’s ever a hint as to why that model gun is needed, this viewer missed it.) His hunt requires the help of a man known as “Liquor Boy” who recently changed his name to “Fish Boy” – a rare good dealer who won’t do anything unless you bring him obscure, vintage gaming devices in return. It also takes a lot of time to deal with women who hand out packs of facial tissues on the street. (Such packs, with advertisements on them, are not an uncommon means of business promotion in Japan.) He wanders through the Shibuya district, past love hotels and small specialty bars, while Kuroyanagi tries to impress us with inserted close-ups of street dirt.
But even the contrived, overly idiosyncratic details soon fade and the focus shifts to Big Hair, a disheveled elderly man whose own mission is hampered by badly injured hands. For example, we watch him try to convey the help he needs from a deaf bike mechanic: He gives him a design for something and insists “just make it,” seemingly not caring if his words are understood. (Which also appears to be the filmmaker’s attitude.)
Style (and oppressive urban-gloomy sound design and music) has replaced stories for so long that few viewers will care when, an hour later, a flashback shows us the murder of 2017 that started it all. Is this miniature gang war really about an innocent man who was murdered? A pale blond street runner who appeared to be a minor character could in fact be the main driver of the plot. Or maybe not: towards the end, we meet a better-dressed mobster called God, who supposedly has a connection to the hood with God Son tattooed on his stomach. Anyone still awake at this point may reinterpret the whole thing as a Christian allegory, which would make about as much sense as any other reading.