Tokyo featured image

reviewed by Marc Glassman

Tokyo. A compilation of three short films. “Interior Design.” Michel Gondry, director. Starring: Ayako Fujitani (Hiroko), Ryo Kase (Akira), Ayumi Ito (Akemi). “Merde.” Leos Carax, director. Starring: Denis Lavant (M. Merde), Jean-Francois Balmer (M. Voland), Julie Dreyfus (the interpreter). “Shaking Tokyo.” Bong Joon-Ho, director. Starring: Teruyuki Kagawa (The hikikomori), Yu Aoi (Pizza Delivery Girl)

Although all major cities are increasingly globalized entities — paid for (in part) by rich tourists and serviced in most cases by poor immigrants — it’s still quite bold to have three non-Japanese directors make a collective film called Tokyo. Frenchmen Michel Gondry and Leos Carax accompanied by their young South Korean colleague Bong Joon-Ho have taken on the nearly impossible task of dramatizing Japan’s biggest city, admittedly with the help of Japanese producers and actors. Still the vision of this triptych feels foreign even to a Canadian. This is ultra-modern Tokyo as seen through the eyes of visitors, not natives.

Perhaps that’s why the results are so delightfully absurd. Tokyo is a contradictory place: huge and futuristic in architecture, fashion and music but still conservative in the ways that native Japanese interact with each other. That may explain why all three of these films deal with breakdowns; this is a society that can no longer handle its wildly accelerating growth. Each filmmaker offers a scenario in which peoples’ lives — and even their bodies — change due to the pressure of living in Tokyo. These three tales are reckless, funny and often brutal. If you wanted a definition for the word “quirky,” look no further; Tokyo is it.

In “Interior Design,” Michel Gondry’s (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) entry, two young lovers, Hiroko and Akira, come to Tokyo to make it in the big city. Akira has made a pretentious art film that he hopes will get him noticed in the movie business while the more practical Hiroko tries to find them permanent lodgings since their old school friend Akemi clearly has no space for them in her very crowded apartment.

The first part of Gondry’s short feels amusing but predictable — every apartment is rat infested, their car is towed away, the art house where Akira screens his film is a porno theatre. Then, Hiroko undergoes an astonishing transformation; she begins to turn into a wood chair!

Yep, Kafka arrives in Tokyo but, astonishingly, this strange metaphor works and you begin to realize that the Hirokos of the world, stripped of their communities and feelings of self-worth, do turn “wooden” and anonymous in big cities. What will happen to Akira and Akemi without Hiroko? Gondry leaves us to wonder what designs Tokyo has for these two more resilient young people.

In “Merde,” Leos Carax (Les amants du Pont-Neuf) offers up an outrageous horror thriller. A bizarre “Creature from the Sewers” emerges on to Tokyo’s streets, stealing and eating flowers and money, licking schoolgirls and attacking people who get in his way. Disappearing into the sewers, where the police can’t find him, the Creature — an appalling cross between The Hunchback of Notre Dame and the Phantom of the Opera — finds a cache of hand grenades not used during Japan’s worst imperialist moment, the bombing of Nanking during the 1930s.

When the Creature reemerges and starts throwing the hand grenades at unsuspecting citizens in a crowded downtown Tokyo district, the carnage is instantaneous and terrifying. Finally captured, the Creature is placed on trial and a huge media circus erupts. A French attorney arrives who can speak the Creature’s obscure language — and it’s explained that the deranged, bizarre figure despises the Japanese and is killing them under instructions from God. A strange, ambiguous and possibly mystical ending completes the tale of M. Merde, which is the Creature’s real name.

What are we to make of this episode? Carax flings a full frontal assault — a veritable “merde” storm of controversial material — at the viewer. Are the Japanese still to blame for war crimes perpetuated in the ‘30s? Why does the strange, twisted Creature hate them so much? If he’s imbued with mystical powers, isn’t he more likely to be a Devil than an Angel?

By comparison, “Shaking Tokyo” offers a slightly softer, almost romantic view of the city and its inhabitants, particularly a “hikikomori” — or Tokyo recluse – who hasn’t been outdoors in ten years. Sponsored by his father, he reads books, collects bottles and boxes and orders in pizza once a week. One day, the pizza delivery person turns out to be a lovely girl. Astonished, he starts to speak to her, only to be interrupted by an earthquake. The tremors knock the girl out and she only awakens when he pushes a button-like tattoo on her arm, which reads “coma.”

Infatuated, he waits a week for her to deliver his next pizza only to discover that she’s quit to become a hikikomori, too. Gathering up all his courage, the recluse travels across a far less glamorous Tokyo to find the girl. When he knocks on her door, she refuses to see him — until another earthquake erupts.

You could rename this tale “True Love through the Tremors” but “Shaking Tokyo” will do. The hikikomori phenomenon exists among upper middle kids in Japan; it’s estimated that millions have suffered from it over the past 30 years. What does it say about a society when people, given a choice, withdraw from dealing with others? Apparently, the search for isolation among late adolescents is growing throughout Asia, including South Korea, director Joon-Ho’s home.

So: three unsettling tales, stylishly presented and very well acted. These directorial outsiders may have provided some insights into Tokyo but this intriguing compilation film seems to be really about the struggles we all endure in big cities. Youth everywhere — and the young at heart — are attempting to deal with cultures and economies that have run amuck. Why not react to the stresses of the city through absurdity? It’s no solution but at least it’s honest.

Tokyo is not a film for everyone. Obviously, I loved it — and I think there are a number of viewers out there who will share that opinion.

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