Bong Joon-ho, Leos Carax, Michel Gondry
Ayako Fujitani, Ryo Kase, Denis Lavant, Jean-Francois Balmer, Teruyuki Kagawa, Yu Aoi
US theatrical: 6 Mar 2009 (Limited release)
UK theatrical: 25 May 2009 (General release)
What’s with me?
—The hikikomori (Teruyuki Kagawa)
“This place is really perfect!” exclaims a nameless pizza delivery girl (Yu Aoi). Standing in the doorway, appreciating the compressed, dark apartment belonging to her client of the moment (Teruyuki Kagawa). Stacked with empty pizza boxes and equipped with a basic landline phone, it constitutes a self-enclosed world. Indeed, it is both haven and trap for the client, who describes himself as a hikikomori (extreme recluse). Struck by her enthusiasm, he looks up, just for an instant, and catches her eye. He gasps, barely nods, reeling from the “first eye contact” he’s made in 12 years.
The girl leaves him, but he can’t forget her. He tries to call her back, ordering more pizza, but she has become a recluse herself, no longer showing up to work, seeking her own perfect place. Desperate and un-self-knowing, he decides to pursue her, even if that means emerging from his apartment, into sunlight, traffic sounds, and urban air. The decision is difficult, given that he—the hikikomori—is a profoundly circular and fantastic concept. As soon as he steps out, he comes into representation. Visible in news reports and conjured in fans’ feverish minds, the hikikomori is now spectacle, exactly what he can’t imagine.
It’s a brilliant conundrum, illustrated superbly if indirectly in Shaking Tokyo, Bong Joon-ho’s terrific contribution to the short-film trilogy Tôkyô!. Like Michel Gondry’s Interior Design and Leo Carax’s Merde, Bong’s film reconfigures the city in a way that’s both wildly original and oddly familiar, challenging stereotypes and rethinking assumptions. Tokyo in each instance is typically colorful and pulsing, its streets pocked with neon signs, crowds of pedestrians, and looming skyscrapers. It is also newly vibrant, skewed and exciting and intermittently menacing.
Interior Design quickly establishes a peculiar relation between internal and external states. Young filmmaker Akira (Ryo Kase) and his girlfriend Hiroko (Ayako Fujitani) arrive in town to promote his independent feature. As they ride into town, he describes his vision: “It rained for months on end, the whole of Tokyo was flooded,” he enthuses. The weather onslaught results in mutation, he continues, a band of survivors changed into “strange amphibian monsters, adapting quickly to the changing climate.” The story quickly shifts from his fantasy to their reality, but the direction is set. Each will adapt to the city in his or her own way.
Staying temporarily in the cramped apartment of her friend Akemi (Ayumi Ito), they go forth each day in search of space and work. Akira finds a job wrapping gifts in a department store, but Hiroko is soon and repeatedly frustrated. Beset by a series of standard-city-type misfortunes (as when the car is towed to a municipal lot, Akira’s precious filming equipment locked inside), Hiroko feels increasingly unwanted and unproductive (“Akira’s not useless, he’s got a job,” she overhears her friend say, “It’s Hiroko who does nothing”). Stymied, she resists Akira’s occasional entreaties (“You’re always saying something clever to avoid really talking”) and begins to see herself as others do (at a screening of his film, she watches him flirt with a fan, relegated to “just the girlfriend” status in a conversation in the lobby. Her interlocutor commiserates: “Relationships with artists are hard,” the woman observes. Hiroko can only agree.
This realization leads to Hiroko’s transformation into a wooden chair, reflecting her self-image literally and metaphorically. Her drastic turn inside is both antic (as Gondry’s imagery can be) and also unnerving, a means to escape the stress of the city (which becomes increasingly dark and creepy in her experience) and a way to make sense of her lost self. Her turn is also specifically gendered; an alternative, more conventionally masculine response to feeling rejected and lost is found in Merde. Here the title character (Danis Lavant) emerges from the sewers, staggering Godzilla-like along sidewalks, pulverizing pedestrians. Dressed in a green suit and sporting an “insane beard,” Merde sends the citizens into a panic. And because he is aggressive, his story makes the news (unlike, say, the extremely receding Hiroko). Breathless reporters announce, “Tokyo is afraid! Who is this creature who has been terrifying citizens all over Tokyo, then disappearing?”
Merde’s threat is both existential and intimate, uniting and redefining the city. “I was so afraid,” confesses a fearful person-on-the-street, “I wanted to run away, but I couldn’t move. Then he licked me.” At the same time, he’s a puzzle, making pronouncements for cameras and courtroom assemblies in language that seems impenetrable. Questioned as to motive, he spurts, “I don’t like innocent people. I don’t like people.” As the frame splits into three and then four screens, he adds, “Among all people, Japanese people are really the most disgusting.” His lawyer, Maitre Voland (Jean-Francois Balmer) tries to shut him up, but he’s unstoppable, a figment and a force, ridiculous and horrible. “My god forced me,” Merde asserts, “My god always places me among the people I hate most.” And with that, he slaps himself, hard. His audience is stunned, if not into silence, then at least into a (brief) pause. And then the drive to fierce and righteous retribution can begin again.
Merde’s radical disorientation—his seeming embodiment of self-and-non-self at once—combines monster movie hokum and political scapegoating. He’s the westerner as ultimate beast, unfathomable and too obvious. As such, Merde seems the complete opposite of the shut-in featured in Bong’s film, but they are also of a piece, products of a city, or more precisely, a city imagined. The very idea of the hikikomori is profoundly circular. Here he is admired and emulated—the pizza delivery girl wants to be like him, or even be him—at the same moment he discovers he wants her. Their romance is impossible, and so, all-consuming.
Exemplifying the sensual joys and transcendent horrors of connection, the hikikomori romance is both obsessive and adrift, the couple sharing rhythms—manifested in gorgeous compositions and allusive editing, as they remain bodily apart—that are lovely, spooky, and urgent. Their endless seeking serves as apt coda the three films in Tôkyô!. Taken apart, the movies are pretty much perfect evocations of places internal and not. Taken together, they create a frightful, smart, and lingering impression.