Tokyo! is a curious conundrum. The movie is a triptych of short films about the titular metropolis made by Michel Gondry
, Leos Carax
, and Joon-ho Bong
, three non-Japanese filmmakers. Each tries to offer up personalized impressions of the Japanese capital, and that alone would suggest a worthwhile cinematic experience. But the films themselves lack the intimacy with Tokyo's cultural nuances that we crave from a piece like this, trafficking instead in stereotypes and platitudes.
For its easy charm and humor, Michel Gondry's "Interior Design" comes off best. Gondry's story follows a young couple -- Hiroko and Akira (Ayako Fujitani
and Ryo Kase) -- who have just moved to Tokyo, struggling to find an apartment, jobs, and generally to start their new lives. Akira's an aspiring filmmaker-artist, hence a bit of a space case, while his girlfriend Hiroko is smart but directionless. While getting started in Tokyo, they bunk up with a friend in her absurdly tiny apartment. Gradually, Hiroko pulls away from Akira and, in a Gondry-esque bit of transmogrification, she suddenly has the ability to shift from human to chair form and back. As a chair, she becomes part of the furnishings in a stranger's home, and feels herself an object of value, something she lacked as a human being. Gondry pokes fun at Tokyo's housing crisis: The living spaces are hilariously cramped, hardly more than glorified closets. With the low-key bantering of its characters, the quotidian details of Tokyo street life, its movie-within-a-movie device, the human-chair magic trick, and the overall theme of life-as-reverie, this is a Gondry project through and through. And, though not illuminating on the subject of its city, it's still a cute, clever take on Tokyo to keep us amused. Article continues below
Coming a close second is Korean filmmaker Joon-ho Bong's "Shaking Tokyo," about a recluse (Teruyuki Kagawa) who's holed himself up in his apartment for 10 years. His only contact with the outside world is via his telephone, through which orders groceries and take-out pizza. When he falls in love with the pizza delivery girl, the recluse decides to break his self-imposed isolation, and sets out across Tokyo to find her. But the Tokyo that he steps into is a strangely desolate urban landscape -- the outer world has come to mirror the inner world -- as citizens have sealed themselves into their own private universes and happy-faced robots perform the task of maintaining the city. It's also a world punctuated by earthquakes, premonitions of disaster and death against which the love between the recluse and the pizza girl is the only talisman. Strikingly filmed, Bong infuses a dreamy, sullen mood to express the alienation of modern Tokyo, all unfolding against the ever-present reality of natural disaster murmuring in the background.
Sandwiched between Gondry's and Bong's entries is Leos Carax' "Merde" -- a film least about Tokyo and most about Leos Carax. Riffing on Tokyo's Godzilla culture, Carax' tiresome, distinctly French (i.e. unfunny) comedy depicts a subterranean troll-like humanoid (Denis Lavant) who becomes a media sensation after he emerges from his sewer-home and begins harassing and killing Tokyo citizens. The troll -- dubbed Merde (French for "shit" in case you cared) -- is captured but, turns out, his oddball, simian grunting can only be understood by an equally oddball French attorney (Jean-François Balmer
) who insists on defending Merde in a circus-like trial in which issues of Japan's xenophobia are obtusely explored. Self-consciously wry, "Merde" reaches for big themes on the absurdity of the news media, Japan's pop culture (i.e. Godzilla), the fear of the "other," and something about communication and language. On all counts, it's an airball. Carax' film is painfully precious and heavy handed in the worst French tradition, and has no business being part of an omnibus about Tokyo.
While intermittently enjoyable and visually clever, Tokyo! isn't remotely groundbreaking, either as cinema or as a vision of one of the world's most chaotic, complex, and exuberant cities. At its best, the movie is a stylish spin through the Tokyo universe, a play on the psychology and realities of one of the world's most urbanized societies, by two entertaining directors. And, at its worst, it's a jumping-off point for one filmmaker's tedious and solipsistic self indulgence.