Tokyo! – Film Review
This triptych of tales set in the titular city of Tokyo suggests an Eastern version of NEW YORK STORIES, but there is a significant difference: in this case, none of the three writer-directors (two French and one Korean) are natives; consequently, their short films emerge less as love letters to the city than as skewed points of view from outsiders looking in on what they consider to be a strange, exotic land, bordering on a freak show. With their surreal touches, fanciful symbolism, and at least one outright refernce to Japanese kaiju cinema, TOKYO! emerges as a boderline genre effort – not quite a fantasy film but definitely a curious piece of cinefantatique. Unfortunately, the weirdness is not always entertaining – in some cases it is merely boring – but there is enough going on to make this interesting for fans of art house cinema.
“Interior Design,” written and directed by Michel Gondry (who directed ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND), is about a young couple who move to Tokyo and suffer the usual fate of small-towners trying to make it in the big city: can’t find parking, can’t find an apartment, can’t make enough money to survive. The young man is an aspiring filmmaker who tells weird stories about mutants and ghosts in order to avoid serious conversations with his significant other; his film is a hilarious pretentious piece of science fiction, which he screens in a porno theatre, augmenting the presentation with a smoke machine to break down the barriers between the movie and the audience.
His girlfriend (Akayko Fujitani, Steven Seagal’s daughter, previously seen in the three GAMERA movies from the ’90s) is a young woman who lacks ambition and starts to feel left out of his life. Feeling increasingly detached and useless, she mutates into a chair. The transformation – achieved with some impressive and often simple special effects techniques – is presumably meant to be taken more symbolically than literally (like Gregor Samsa in Kafka’s famous tale). Initially, the metamorphosis is horrible but ultimately it turns funny, as she finds a place for herself in the city, serving as a seat for a musician and occasionally transforming back into her human form when nobody is looking. The episode is a bit of a trifle but an amusing one.
The film infringes further upon genre territory in its second episode, Leos Carax’s “Merde” (literally “shit” in French), which is about a mysterious man who rises from the sewer like a monster to spread panic in the streets of Tokyo. At first his rampage is restricted to stealing flowers and cigarettes ( he throws the used butt into a baby carriage), but eventually he finds some old grenades and lobs them at pedestrians, killing dozens. The first half of the episode offers a decent combination of silent-movie-style comedy and monster-movie-spoof: a television anchorwoman insists on referring to the vagrant as a “creature from the sewars, and in case you don’t get the point that he is the film’s equivalent of a movie monster, Carax underlines the point by using Akira Ifukube’s “Godzilla Theme” prominently on the soundtrack.
Carax is doing something roughly analogous to Godard’s ALPHAVILLE, in which a typical sci-fi scenario was presented with a private eye standing in for an astromaut. Unfortunately, as amusing as the conciet is, the second half of the episode descends into boredom as the stranger is captured and put on trial, where he is defended by a French lawyer who can speak his strange language. Carax spends way too much time on the absurd gibberish that passes for dialogue between the two; presumably, it is meant to be funny, but it grows tiresome after thirty seconds. At least the episode ends on an appropriately absurd note: the monster is defeated (well, executed) but revives, the closing title card promising the upcoming adventures of “Merde in New York.”
Third and best of the three is Bong Joon-ho’s “Shaking Tokyo,” about an agoraphobic man, called a hikikomori in Japanese. When we meet the nameless man, he has not set foot outside for ten years, surviving on money from his parents, which he uses to order pizza; he stacks the used boxes (along with toilet paper rolls and used books) with admriable geometric symmetry, making the best use of his limited space. His isolation is disrupted by a pretty pizza delivery girl – the earth literally moves when they meet, and she faints from the excitement, forcing him to make personal contact (which he dreads) in order to revive her.
After she quits her job, he is forced to go outside and track her down, but he is in for a surprise: in the ten years since he last left his home, it seems that the rest of Tokyo have become hikikomori as well, leaving the city streets empty except for him. Fortunately, another earthquake arrives, scaring everybody out of their homes, and he is able to convince the girl not to return to her isolation – by literally pushing her buttons (she wears tattoo of buttons for such emotions and conditions as “hysteria,” “coma,” and “love.” As their eyes meet, the rumbling earth suggests the emotional eruption inside their hearts. Like “Interior Design,” “Shaking Tokyo” is a bit of a trifle, but the simple situation and characters are sweat and endearing.
If there is a consistency among the three episodes, it is that they avoid presenting familiar images of Tokyo as a glistening metropolis (contradicting the promise of the animated opening titles). The endeavor to avoid the obvious is admirable, but as a consequence the city never emerges as a memorable character in its own right, and ultimately the stories do not seem particularly endemic to the location (except perhaps for “Merde,” with its references to Godzilla).
There also seems to have been an effort to craft stories that were poetic, not to mention enigmatic, but the results are only partially successful, more resembling after-dinner anecdotes that hold your attention until coffee is served. All of the episodes have points of interest, but none of them are particularly profound, and they don’t add up to a particularly interesting portrait of Tokyo as a city of dreams or disappointments or anything else in particular. Taken as individual episodes, TOKYO! offers three tales that are worth watching if you have a predilection for the subject matter, but the whole is definitely less than the sum of its parts.
TOKYO! (2008). “Interior Design” directed by Michel Gondry; screenplay by Gondry and Gabrielle Bell, based on Bell’s graphic novel “Cecil and Jordan in New York.” Cast: Akayko Fujitani, Ayumi Ito, Ryo Kase, Nao Omori. “Merde” written and directed by Leos Carax. Cast: Jean_Francois Balmer, Denis Lavant. “Shaking Tokyo” written and directed by Bong Joon-ho. Cast: Teruyuki Kagawa, Yui Aoi, Naoto Takenaka.