TOKYO! Review-by Slate Honey

TOKYO! Is a triptych film portrait of the dense, ever-growing Japanese metropolis.  Directors Michel Gondry, Leos Carax and Bong Joon-Ho each direct a short within TOKYO! and present vastly different views of the city.

TOKYO! begins with Michel Gondry’s short INTERIOR DESIGN.  The film follows much in suit with Gondry’s past hits ETERNAL SUNSHINE and THE SCIENCE OF SLEEP as a portrait of not-perfect coupledom and the trials of partership and breaking up.  A young couple, Hiroko and Akira, move to Tokyo to discover a cramped city full of characters and a series of urban life obstacles.  INTERIOR DESIGN charts the shift in this couple’s life as Akira gains recognition as an emerging filmmaker and Hiroko becomes increasingly jealous, feeling lost and useless.  Gondry pokes fun at his own art and serves up a hilarious scene when Akira screens his experimental film at a porn theatre.  Filling the theatre with smoke from a smoke-machine as the uber-absurdist black and white film rolls, Akira is the perfect typecast of underground experimental film nerds.  As the audience leaves the theatre coughing and rolling their eyes, Akira is oblivious, emphatically engaged in conversation with a viewer, explaining “I like to have the viewers interact with my cinema.” INTERIOR DESIGN focuses on Hiroko’s struggle and Gondry brings in his trademark cartoonish magical realism in the end, transforming her physically as her sense of security and spirit gradually break down.  INTERIOR DESIGN proposes a view of partnership as a question of utility.  As Hiroko feels increasingly useless in her relationship with Akira, she becomes quite literally physically useful to a relationship with a musician—I won’t spoil the ending.  It’s always a pleasure to delve into Gondry’s magical surrealist mind and try and figure out how he manages those illusionist cinema tricks.

The second short in TOKYO!, Leos Carax’s MERDE is by far the most hilarious but also the most inaccessible of the three films.  It begins with absurdist, dark humor: a grimy demented leprechaun-like creature (played by well-known French actor Denis Lavant) emerges from a man hole and proceeds to powerwalk through Tokyo, grabbing whatever he can from pedestrians: a child’s toy, a half smoked cigarette from a businessman’s hand, chrysanthemum flowers from a bouquet that he stuffs into his mouth.  The repulsive subterranean man-monster starts worse trouble after discovering an arsenal of grenades underground and becomes a media star as Tokyo’s newest terrorist-bomber.  MERDE quickly transitions to a dramatic, philosophical foray into mass-media demonization tactics, nihilism and the ethics of convicting ‘sub-humans’.  Carax’s film successfully weaves humor and satire into an allegorical portrait of post-911morality, but the film begins to drag and becomes convoluted when a new character enters.  A French lawyer who bears resemblance to the terrorist claims to be the sole person in the world who speaks the creature’s gibberish-like language and arrives in Tokyo to represent him in a trial that could put him on death row.  Despite some split screen pizzazz, the courtroom scenes slow down the film considerably, sacrificing some interesting ethical questions of the value of life—that of the creature’s victims and of the creature himself.  MERDE ends with a little magic, proving that not all earth-bound things can be tamed by the law.

Bong Joon-Ho’s SHAKING TOKYO is the final short in this series.  It is the most streamlined of the three.  It’s simplicity makes it poetic and very effective as a short film (every filmmaker’s challenge with working in short format).  It takes as subject a hikikimori, a shut-in, who has not left his apartment in a decade.  The lush cinematography renders the man’s dark, musty apartment an enviable paradise.  Perfectly arranged stacks of pizza boxes make a wall, dust dances in a slender ray of sunlight and a beautiful clock ticks ever so patiently as the hikikimori softly describes a life utterly lonely but safe.  Japanese Academy Award nominated actor Teruyuki Kagawa plays the lead role.  His fragility reads tenderly and beautifully on-screen.  Nearly trembling at the prospect of encountering others at the door to his apartment, the man’s subtle movements foreshadow an earthquake that will shake the city and an explosion of emotion for another hikikimori he meets, an unlikely teenage love object.  Bong Joon-Ho’s ends his story with a wise moral: stray from safety (no matter how gorgeous it looks) and invite some risky passion into your life.

TOKYO! arrives in theatres in March 2009.

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