Earlier this year, my family took a long-awaited trip to Japan. I had been wanting to go to the “Land of the Rising Sun” for many years now, due in no small part to my love of that nation’s cinema (animated or otherwise), and the trip didn’t disappoint in the slightest.
I joked with Japanese friends that their country was nothing like the movies I’d seen — there were no samurai to be found, no giant monsters battling giant robots in their cities. But in a way, it was just like the movies that I’d seen (samurai, monsters, and robots notwithstanding). During our trip, I experienced several instances of a strange, cinema-derived deja vú.
At one point, while driving down a street in Shizuoka lined with rice fields, the clouds low in the grey March sky, I almost had to ask my friend to pull over: I felt like I’d suddenly driven into a scene from some Hirokazu Kore-Eda or Toshiaki Toyoda film that I’d seen years ago but had forgotten.
But if there is one regret from the trip, it’s that we didn’t spend more time in Tokyo. I’ve spent my entire life in Nebraska, so any city over a million is big in my book. As such, you can imagine my reaction to the sprawl that is Japan’s capital. We spent about a week in the city and yet I think we only saw 1/100,000th of it, if even that. It’s a mind-boggling place, seemingly impossible on several levels. And yet, it possesses an undeniable energy, whether you’re walking through the Imperial Gardens or the alleys of Akihabara (arguably the geek capital of the world)
It’s no surprise that someone would want to put together a series of short films ostensibly about the city itself, and the effects — good and bad — that it has on people. Which brings us to Tokyo!, a triptych of short films whose primary common thread is their locale. Well that, and the fact that all three shorts were made by non-Japanese filmmakers: Michel Gondry, Leos Carax, and Bong Joon-ho.
The choice of gaikokujin directors serves a couple of purposes. It’s bound to help the film’s interest outside of Japan, due to the filmmakers’ names on the cover. But more importantly, it provides an outsider’s perspective on the city. As such, it makes sense that all three shorts deal with stories of outsiders, of people who are, in their own way, lost and alone in the big city of Tokyo.
Tokyo! begins with its strongest segment, Gondry’s Interior Design. As is often the case with Gondry, the movie features the dreams and machinations of an inveterate dreamer. But this time, the focus isn’t on him, but rather, on his girlfriend.
Hiroko and Akira have recently arrived in Tokyo with their hopes riding on Akira’s new film, which he hopes will lead to bigger and better things. In the meantime, limited funds force them to stay with an old friend from school in her one-room apartment (which immediately sets up the short’s humorous side).
While Akira works an odd job before his film’s premier, Hiroko looks for an apartment that they can afford. Soon enough, their relationship grows strained as Hiroko realizes that, while Akira has something he’s passionate about — i.e., his film — she is basically drifting through her life. The realization sends her reeling and into a Kafka-esque transformation.
Story-wise, Interior Design is decent. I do wish it were about 10 minutes longer in order to flesh out the characters a bit more and give a little more development to the crises that arise. As it stands, the conflict in the film doesn’t match up to the events that happen later in the film. But if anything, watch it for Gondry’s tricks.
If you enjoyed his visual sleight of hand in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or the props and gadgets in The Science of Sleep, you ain’t seen nothing yet. You’ll never look at a wooden chair the same way ever again, trust me. And the film also has plenty of flashes of warm humor, be it Hiroko’s attempts to get Akira’s film equipment out of their impounded car, or Akira’s film premier, which happens in a porn theatre and is attended by a crowd that becomes increasingly baffled by Akira’s “interactive” brand of experimental cinema.
Tokyo! ends with Bong Joon-ho’s Shaking Tokyo, and while its storyline is weaker than Interior Design’s, I still found it beguiling due in large part to Bong’s impeccable visuals. And if the short’s title has you thinking it’s some disaster film, a smaller follow-up to Bong’s awesome monster romp The Host perhaps, then think again.
Shaking Tokyo’s unnamed protagonist is a hikikomori, one of the many Japanese who shut themselves up in their house or apartment and will stay inside for months, even years on end. The man spends his days simply doing nothing — that is, unless you count ruminating on the sensation of going to the bathroom something — and his only contact with the outside world is his phone, which he uses to call various delivery services.
His predictable existence is best exemplified by the hundreds of pizza boxes stacked in his living room: every Saturday he orders the same pizza from the same pizza place, with only the slightest of interactions — until the day a pretty girl delivers his pizza, a pretty girl who collapses in his doorway when a sudden earthquake strikes. Predictably, the man finds himself falling in love with her.
At this point, Bong begins toying with the story’s obvious conventions a bit (even if the ending is never really in that doubt). Shaking Tokyo becomes lightly surreal as Bong screws with our sense of time’s passage, replicating the skewed sense of time that being shut up in a house for years would no doubt create. A bit of sci-fi is thrown in as well, as we see pizza delivery robots making their rounds, which screws with our sense of time even moreso. It becomes a little jumbled towards the end, adopting a post-apocalyptic tone that seems a little out of place compared to the opening moments.
What ultimately “saves” Shaking Tokyo for me is Bong’s imagery. He doesn’t incorporate trompe l’œil like Gondry does, but rather, relies on gorgeously lensed visuals. When the hikikomori eventually leaves his apartment, Bong’s use of light to reveal the man’s hesitance, as well as the effect that sunlight has on his eyes is subtle, yet effective. And using simple camera movements, he makes the man’s daytime trek through the streets of his neighborhood something that, for all of the sunlight and fresh air, is claustrophobic and alien.
Which brings us, finally, to Leos Carax’s Merde, the middle short. I could make some pithy remark about the title’s appropriateness, but that’d be a little too easy. Rather, you could just say that I didn’t care for it much at all, and I sometimes got the feeling that neither did Carax.
While all three of Tokyo!’s shorts deal with outsiders, Merde’s central character is by far the most alienated. A shambling mess that resembles a cross between Nick Nolte’s infamous mug shot, Marilyn Manson, and Quasimodo, he emerges from Tokyo’s sewers and wreaks havoc on the surrounding populace. At first, his antics are relatively benign for all of their obnoxiousness: stealing cigarettes from pedestrians’ mouths, licking the armpits of girls who try to take his picture with their cellphone. But it’s enough to whip the populace, and the media, into a frenzy.
His actions, however, escalate and he begins leaving corpses in his wake and is finally caught and made to stand trial for his crimes. Unfortunately, the only one who can understand his gutteral language is a French lawyer who bears more than a passing resemblance. At this point, the film switches to a courtroom drama, and slowly but surely loses its way, becoming increasingly dull.
Now early on, the short did pack in some dark humor, as well as some satire of media feeding frenzies and cults of personality. But as Merde continues, Carax throws in ideas and themes for the heck of it, in much the same way that he throws around camera angles during the courtroom scenes. Is the man a madman, a mass murderer, or a messenger of Divine judgment on the crimes of the Japanese people? Is Merde an exploration of the effects of terrorism on a society, of the fundementalist mindset? Or is Merde simply the case of an intriguing premise that, as it turns out, can’t quite support a film, short or otherwise?
I suppose that the highest compliment I can pay Tokyo! is that it makes me want to return to its namesake city even moreso. I want to see the corner where Hiroko experiences her transformation, the cracks between the building where Akira’s ghosts glide. I want to find that little corner of Tokyo the hikikomori calls home, and hopefully catch a glimpse of him stumbling after love for the first time in God knows how long.
But if you don’t mind, I think I’ll skip the sewers and take another trip to the Ghibli Museum.
This article originally appeared on Filmwell on September 23, 2009.