Tokyo! is a triptych about a city. It’s comprised of three films by three foreign directors, two French and one Korean: Michel Gondry, Leos Carax, and Bong Joon-Ho. Like New York Stories or Paris, je t’aime, the movie offers commentary on a famed city. In this case, it’s Tokyo. All three short films look at outsiders from within, at eccentrics and freaks.
Interior Designs is Michel Gondry’s entry and the first film of the three. It’s also the most approachable and the least Japanese. It follows an eccentric, young, childish, and plain awful filmmaker and his girlfriend as they enter the city. She acts as the boom stand to his shaky microphone as the two look for places to live and work between evenings spent crammed like sardines in the apartment of an old friend. The best moment is the first second you see the friend’s apartment – a small studio, packed with colorful subtlety and a life’s belongings. When the story settles on the excess-baggage girlfriend and her way of coping with a lack of life-ready skills and ambitions, the movie takes a lyrical turn, complete with a spoonful of playful fantasy. Gondry feels the most comfortable in the short film mold, probably due to his extensive music video experience, and fans of the man should find what they’re expecting.
Leos Carax directs the second film, Merde, about a being who emerges from the sewers to eat flowers, cash, and occasionally throw grenades. He speaks a tongue only discernible by 3 people in the world, one of whom becomes his lawyer when he is captured and tried for murder. Most ostensibly, it’s a satire of and homage to Godzilla and Japan’s long history of monster movies. A little deeper, it’s a critique of a tendency to bury military history and racial tensions with the hope that they’ll decompose quietly. Merde (French for “shit”) is the most ambitious of the three films, loaded with arguments, filmic references and split-screen shots. Most of this probably goes unnoticed amid the chaos, indicative of the film’s grandiose aversion to clarity. It remains, however, the most technically interesting and intellectual of the three.
The third, from Korean director Bong Joon-ho titled Shaking Tokyo, re-centers things. It puts the spotlight on a Japanese phenomenon whereby people shut themselves off entirely from society. Teruyiki Kagawa plays one such hikikomori (shut-in). For 10 years he orders everything via telephone, never makes eye contact with delivery people, reads extensively and systematically decorates his apartment with empty containers. In one home, there’s something perfect about the lifestyle, but extend the logic and society falls apart. The idea would have made a great feature length film, combining meditative, tightly framed domestic shots like that of Tony Takitani with a second half of Pulse-style apocalyptic energy.
In the short time frame and following the chaos of Merde, it feels flat and incomplete. Despite that, Shaking Tokyo is the most focused of the three, and has the most to say about Tokyo.
Being more about select oddities within a city than the city as a whole, Tokyo! turns substance into style with intermittent success. The film is another installment in an ill-advised and always slightly dissatisfying trend of bringing disparate directors to foreign places. Were Hirokazu Koreeda, Seijun Suzuki and Takashi Miike not available?
Tokyo! opens at Lumiere Theater Friday, March 20, for one week, and also screened at the SFIAAFF.