Real World Metropolis, Future City on Film: “Almost the Same, But Not Quite” Tokyo in Solaris

I just watched Andrey Tarkovsky’s 1972 film Solaris. The movie’s a whirlwind of mourning, longing, and technologizing. I won’t talk much about the plot here. Instead, I’ll talk about a scene, amongst many, that caught my attention. This scene, in the distant, fuzzy future of the movie’s setting, places us in the passenger seat of a self-propelled car on an impossibly busy highway. In Tokyo, Japan. In 1971. Like Solaris, many TV shows and movies have made use of present-day, real world metropolises to conjure up imagined future cities. In this first segment of a series called “Real World Metropolis, Future City on Film,” Tokyo in Solaris is “almost the same, but not quite” what we’re used to seeing. 

In a scene that runs upwards of four minutes, Tarkovsky captures a “future” city where cars weave through fast-moving traffic along a multilane/multilevel highway. Tall buildings with dazzling billboards and glittering neon signs scroll alongside our moving vehicle. Eerie electronic notes punctuate a mostly silent drive. This scene might sound commonplace, especially for those of us familiar with the highways of Texas and California.

Los Angeles Multilane Freeway Interchange

Los Angeles Freeway Interchange Image Credit: Stock Connection/World of Stock

But in the context of the film, it’s an unsettling drive through a future city (though the scene was filmed on Tokyo’s highways). According to the audio commentary on the Criterion Collection edition of Solaris, film critics Vida Johnson and Graham Petrie claim that Tarkovsky expressly asked for permission from the USSR to film in Japan. Although Tarkovsky’s original goal was to film the World’s Fair in Osaka (held in 1970), he was granted permission to leave for Japan in 1971 and ended up filming everyday traffic in Tokyo instead. Some critics (namely the New York TimesDan Kois) call the scene “the most boring” in the entire movie. Yet, to me, the scene feels anything but unnecessary and ordinary when taken in context. Even while watching the movie in the Austin of 2011, I was struck by how unsettled the scene made me feel. The extra-long takes, the startling electronic sounds, the unexpected cuts between color and black-and-white film all disoriented me.

Tokyo at night with many cars on the highway

Image credit: Screenshot from Solaris scene 

I keep thinking that this scene is—per Homi Bhabha’s concept of “mimicry”—“almost the same, but not quite” the same as the highways I’m familiar with. And, I don’t think so just because I’m not used to seeing Japanese characters during interstate drives. Akira Kurosawa reads the scene with a “shudder.” To Kurosawa, “By a skillful use of mirrors, [Tarkovsky] turned flows of head lights and tail lamps of cars, multiplied and amplified, into a vintage image of the future city.” Given that the film’s protagonist, Kris Kelvin, uncannily finds someone (or something) rather like his dead wife, Hari, on Solaris, the theme of mimicry is Tarkovsky’s signature move for disorientation. Being thrown off kilter when we see Tokyo and Hari is exactly the point.   

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