To Tokyo ***
Dir: Caspar Seale Jones. With: Florence Kosky, Emily Seale-Jones, Luke Smith, Robert Smith. 75 mins. Cert: 15.
Here’s one of those very rare lowish-budget, independently produced, entirely off-radar British debuts to feel like a discovery. The adventurous writer-director Caspar Seale Jones has relocated what might seem a slightly stock horror start point – a fraught young woman fleeing something abominable in her past – to Japan, a choice that instantly gifts his frames more distinctive vistas than all those bargain-bin potboilers pursuing teenagers through the streets of Peterborough or Stroud. More intriguingly yet, it situates To Tokyo in that semi-abandoned Japanese folk horror tradition that once yielded Onibaba and Kwaidan, making merry-macabre use of a still relatively unfamiliar set of demons and ghouls – although it transpires the film’s real monster resides closer to home.
It scores high on dreamy-bordering-on-nightmarish atmosphere. Upon learning her mother is gravely ill, knowingly named heroine Alice (Florence Kosky) passes into either a fugue state or an actual wilderness that encompasses forests, deserts and a mountainside hut where she slaps on warpaint and receives offerings of fruit and entrails from whatever dragged her out here. For half its running time, To Tokyo is just Kosky, some spectacular landscapes (cinematographer Ralph Messer apparently taking notes from that lost visual whizz Tarsem Singh) and a properly creepy spectre who suggests what would happen if Johnny Depp played The Nightmare Before Christmas’s Jack Skellington. Seale Jones makes the bold, rewarding decision not to explain a damn thing: the result’s a small masterclass in show-don’t-tell cinema.
Even when Alice reaches the bright lights of Tokyo, the depopulated backstreets and coldly indifferent skyscrapers prove eerie and unsettling: it’s as though what came before was but a dry run for the worst civilisation has to offer, a training camp for the traumatised. Again, any interpretation will be yours, but there’s a fairytale logic to it, and the action is anchored by Seale Jones’s remarkably assured imagemaking and a performance of intense hollow-eyed persistence by Kosky that approaches what Catherine Deneuve was getting at in Repulsion. Self-evidently a first feature – running to just 75 minutes – it nevertheless serves as a striking and effective calling-card: how encouraging it is to see an emergent British filmmaker reaching for the uncanny and mysterious, rather than settling for hackneyed or humdrum.
To Tokyo screens with a Q&A at the Everyman Muswell Hill, London this Monday at 7.30pm.