A spoiler-free review of an unusual, atmospheric and little-known Japanese thriller.
Death. It’s in the title. The official English name of this unusual Japanese suspense movie is ‘Deaths in Tokimeki’. Tokimeki refers to the heart pounding (for example with excitement) and is often left untranslated. In a similar vain to Et Mourir de Plaisir (1960), Tokimeki ni shisu is an intriguing title for an equally intriguing cult film. Who is going to die?
The idyllic countryside setting of Japan’s northernmost main island of Hokkaido, complimented by a calming musical score, makes it hard to imagine at first how violence and death will occur in this film. Kudo (Kenji Sawada, The Man Who Stole the Sun (1979)) arrives at a small local train station (the now defunct Oshima station), where a doctor (Naoki Sugiura) meets him.
After a short car journey peppered with awkward small talk, they arrive at a house. The doctor is careful to make sure that his guest is in good health and comfortable, cooking him a meal to specifications.
They make for an odd pair of strangers: a lecherous, disgraced medical practitioner and a taciturn knife collector who fastidiously eats fruit and cracks open walnuts with his teeth. The film draws the viewer in, making them question what is going on. It uses intrusions into its calm minimalism to accomplish this. Run-of-the-mill small talk will suddenly turn to a brief hissed conversation about each other’s ‘role’. The doctor reports back to someone on the phone but we only hear one half of the conversation.
Permeating the film is a haunting awareness of unknown entities monitoring these events. This comes in the form of effective computer graphic interludes- which show each characters’ vital statistics and data, and track their whereabouts. The computer text is in the katakana alphabet- giving it a sharp, cold feel. This surveillance and the ‘oddness’ of even mundane interactions is reminiscent both of Nineteen-eighty-four and The Prisoner (1969) TV series.
Later on, computer data matches up the two men with a woman (Kanako Higuchi), who joins them. All three try to work out each other’s roles and what exactly is going to happen. This is a film that keeps the viewer guessing up until the final, thrilling 15 minutes.
Style in Tokimeki
The colour scheme of this film is very calming and minimalistic- the decor of the house is browns, beiges and creams, the doctor’s car is white. Green is in the abundant nature and is the colour of the mysterious heart symbol that starts to show up halfway through (the significance of which is gradually revealed). The camera is mostly stationary or pans slowly. Performances are understated. The trio whisper to each other or talk in low voices. The sound of the characters eating is amplified- akin to ASMR videos that have become popular on Youtube recently. The score by Osamu Shiomura is both haunting and relaxing. It is reminiscent of Ryuuichi Sakamoto’s ‘Forbidden Colors’ from Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence (1983).
The brief moments of sex, of violence and of action in this film cut into the calmness like a sharp, vivid knife. They are used sparingly and to good effect, jolting the viewer. The camera work becomes the opposite to the rest of the film in these tokimeki moments. It is unsteady, and quick cuts are used. There are a couple of brief, lighter moments in this film which remind us that director and screenplay adapter Yoshimitsu Morita is best known for his comedies like The Family Game (1983), starring Yusaku Matsuda.
Final thoughts and availability
In conclusion, this is a film for those who don’t mind their suspense a little unusual and slow paced. In its home country, Tokimeki ni Shisu is not well known; both the movie and its soundtrack have a small cult following. The film has received both the DVD and Blu-ray treatment in Japan. However, it is currently out of print with used copies of the DVD going for around 4000yen (no subs). If you live in Japan, the easiest way to see it is to rent it from Tsutaya. Perhaps one day it will be available to a wider audience via Criterion?