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Tokyo!

Michel Gondry's Interior Design, one of three tales in Tokyo! (Liberation Entertainment)

The first stop on the itinerary is Michel Gondry's Interior Design . The tone is creepy as the film opens on a rainy night with a young couple stuck in traffic. The man describes a mutated race roaming the streets. The scene is exactly what you might expect if you've been following the recent spate of J-horror films. But this proves to be a joke as we discover the young man (Ryo Kase) is an aspiring filmmaker testing out a sci-fi idea on his girlfriend Hiroko (the delicately delightful Ayako Fujitani). Gondry has a good time poking fun at indie filmmaking pretentions (some of which he himself could be found guilty of) and then proceeds to the real story, a Kafkaesque tale of transformation involving the girlfriend finding her place in the world. Gondry presents Tokyo as a city where people are packed in like sardines, and apartments with quirky personalities lay vacant, waiting for someone desperate enough to rent them. Hiroko starts to feel a bit like those unrented spaces until she undergoes a bizarre transformation. I don't want to reveal too much but let me just say that if this kind of transformation occurred in a David Cronenberg film it might be the stuff of horror but since it occurs in the more whimsical world of Michel Gondry it is treated more like a welcome feat of magic.

The buildings -- like Tokyo's inhabitants -- are packed together but left with intriguing narrow gaps between structures. It's in that mysterious space that Gondry stirs our imagination. Gondry's tale feels especially apt in a city as design and style conscious as Japan. Hiroko's fate is something of an exterior design that reflects interior desires. The film represents Gondry's most restrained and sincerely heartfelt work as he captures something both magical and poignant in this huge, bustling city.

The next point of interest in our travels is Leos Carax' Merde , which offers a bizarre riff on one of Japan's national icons... Godzilla.

Denis Lavant as the Godzilla inspired creature in Merde (Liberation Entertainment)

As Godzilla's theme plays on the soundtrack, a man (Denis Lavant) in a green suit terrorizes people on the streets of Tokyo. He emerges from the sewer to rampage through the city grabbing cell phones, knocking over pedestrians, eating money and flowers, and generally wreaking havoc. He grows particularly dangerous when he uncovers old explosives in his subterranean hideaway. This leads to his arrest as authorities try to make sense of his behavior.

Carax cleverly turns the iconic Godzilla into a human-sized creature stomping through Tokyo and symbolizing how the local Japanese view this foreigner as an alien monster. But Carax slyly layers his tale to comment on everything from xenophobia and nationalism to political correctness and commercialism. The segment sets up the most satirical targets of the films and is fueled by an acerbic sense of social commentary but it wears out its welcome with a drawn out interrogation and trial. Carax's tale may be the most inspired and audacious of the three but like his character it is also the most out of control.

Teruyuki Kagawa plays a hikikomori in Bong Joon-ho's segment Shaking Tokyo (Liberation Entertainment)

Bringing things down to a much more modest scale is Bong Joon-ho's Shaking Tokyo . In this story we meet a hikikomori or shut-in. This particular man (Teruyuki Kagawa) has not left his apartment or made eye contact with another human being in 11 years. He lives cocooned in his apartment where everything from toilet paper rolls to old pizza boxes have been stacked with fortress like efficiency. The man seems content, noting that his father sends him money every month, and with money and a phone anything can be delivered. But one day the regular pizza delivery boy turns out to be a cute girl (Yu Aoi) and the man inadvertently makes eye contact... His world literally begins to shake, rumble and roll as an earthquake hits the city and he finds himself faling in love with the waif delivering pizza.

Bong's Shaking Tokyo uses the real problem of the growing number of shut-ins in Japan as the backdrop for a tender tale of love and rebirth. The story also highlights how in a densely populated city people can still experience extreme isolation. Just as the buildings in Gondry's segment were close but never touched, so too are these recluses living right next to each other but completely separated.

The beauty of Bong's tale is its simplicity. In this closed-in world merely catching another's eye is enough for seismic activity. Bong's segment benefits from wonderful production design. There's neat order to the man's cluttered but efficiently organized apartment, and that visually defines his personality as readily as the efficient buildings suit the way Tokyo tries to cram its large population into small physical space. Bong also uses light to brilliant effect. The apartment is bathed in a warm glow that provides comfort but when the man decides to step out of his womb-like environment, we are suddenly faced with a blinding light that signals his discomfort and panic -- as if he were literally being born. He's also like an alien emerging from his spacecraft on a new planet, and the aftershocks of his first contact with other human life-forms plays out with sweet delirium.

Tokyo! (unrated and in Japanese and French with English subtitles) takes us on an inspired tour of the city with three very different guides. All three are outsiders yet each one finds a unique way to capture the look, feel and personality of a city with that's constantly changing.

Companion viewing: Paris Je T'aime, Night on Earth, Mystery Train

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