[21 June 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
A foreboding metropolis that chews up young people, relegating their dreams to a distant memory within servitude and sacrifice. A society so strapped by tradition and “face” that the arrival of a gruff, disgusting foreign throws them into a tizzy of tabloid temptation. A people so lost in their own hermetic insularity that human connections seem alien and almost dangerous. If you listen to three of the world’s foremost film directors - Michel Gondry, Leos Carax, and Bong Joon-Ho - this is Tokyo, Japan’s unyielding urban giant. This is the way the sprawling skyscraper vista works. This is the way it bustles and ebbs. This is the way it is viewed by friend and critic alike. In the amazing anthology named for what is arguably the world’s largest city, different aspects of Tokyo life are explored and systematically deconstructed. Some may consider it a callous critical evaluation. In truth, it’s nothing short of a luxuriant love letter.
In “Interior Design”, Gondry gives us the story of Akira and Hiroko. He’s a wannabe filmmaker. She’s his assistant and his support - both on and off the set. With nowhere to live and limited funds, they impose upon school friend Akemi, herself living in one of the smallest apartments in town. As a couple of days turn into weeks, our novices learn how easily Tokyo takes you apart, reducing you to your basic, subservient self. In “Merde” (French for “shit”), Carax creates a sewer dwelling deviant who wrecks havoc among the polite population, rising from the underground to act in rude and inappropriate ways. When finally caught for his increasingly heinous crimes, he becomes a media star, and the subject of much debate amongst foreigners and fringe groups alike. Finally, Bong’s “Shaking Tokyo” offers a shut-in (or in Japanese, a “hikikomori”) who hasn’t ventured out of his house in over a decade. When he finally makes contact with an eccentric pizza delivery gal, his world is literally rocked to its foundation.
As examples of interpretation, Tokyo! offers a wholly unique cinematic experience. It’s fun, and often frustrating, to see what each filmmaker is offering with their clearly personalized and oddly perturbing take on this icon of the Eastern empire. There is no attempt to explain the city, no offering of history or pragmatic context. Like a dance meant to symbolize something outside its individual steps, Gondry, Carax, and Bong have braved the wrath of nearly 35 million Japanese to give Tokyo! the artistic analytical patina it apparently needs. For many in the West, the city stands as the center of a once mighty economic behemoth, a workaholic wasteland of technological progress and entertainment oddity. But buried within the fiscal fallacies, freak game shows, and 80 hour weeks are smaller stories, pieces of a personal puzzle that makes any attempt at generalization seems petty and pointless.
And this is exactly what Tokyo! wants to focus on. For Gondry’s characters, there is no need to dream. One can’t be picky about where they want to live, nor can they claim a career outside the mainstream when said sentiments are often viewed as silly or idiotic. For Akira, an eventual part-time job as a package wrapper seems to suck all the energy out of his desire to make movies. But it’s worse for Hiroko. As the woman behind the man, as the cleaner of her careless lover’s many messes, she’s a cipher, a vacant facet of a fleeting urban reality. When she finally resolves herself to an accessory-like existence in the service of someone else (instead of exploring her own wistful wants) things become settled - and quite sad. As he often does, Gondry pushes the boundaries of both realism and fantasy to forge a truth few could easily see before.
Carax is not that subtle. He is out to attack Japan like the green-suited Godzilla his Monster from the Sewers represents. It what is clearly the most clichéd of all Tokyo! ‘s conceits, the Frenchman fidgets with the Asian ideas of etiquette, social acceptability, and public reactions to same. We see actor Danis Lavant, looking a lot like a repugnant leprechaun, rising from the streets to confront his prey - and while his initial actions are simply rude (stealing cigarettes, eating potted plants, licking a young girl’s armpit), the tone grows more and more menacing. Finally, the discovery of a box of old World War II grenades - gotta love the understated symbolism involved - allows the Monster to truly live up to his title. From then on, Carax indulges in a countryman’s comedy of the absurd, Lavant trading nonsense gobbledygook with an imported lawyer played with equal oddball verve by Jean-Francois Balmer. Their wholly private pantomime leaves the Japanese stunned - that is, until the villain reveals who he really might be. Then we get even more East meet West weirdness.
Unlike Carax’s hammer-over-the-head (and still wholly entertaining) obviousness, Bong believes in giving very little away. His segment is a lot like the main character he features - meticulous, studied, and reluctant to open himself up. As we watch the OCD like living arrangements, as we marvel at a house that’s as neat as a pin but as sterile as such a setting creates, we wait for the next emotional shoe to drop, and when Bong finally decides to deliver it, it’s devastating. The last act then becomes a kind of communal mea culpa, a way of showing how life in a city this size can create a populace only plagued by what they personally obsess on. Gone is our hero’s hikikomori psychosis. In its place is a desperation for human contact, the kind of fear that will make even the most insane individual snap out of their practiced routine. As with the other two installments, Bong is not out to illustrate some massive philosophical point. This kind of one-on-one want is how he sees the traps within Tokyo.
As with any translation over to home video, some might feel robbed of this film’s substantial scope and visual panache. There is actually no need to worry on that front as the Blu-ray release of Tokyo! looks amazing. The 1080p offering brings out all the optical detail Gondry, Carax and Bong managed to add to their efforts, and the city itself (when shown) has the kind of sizable sprawl that puts the whole enterprise into aesthetic perspective. Even better, Liberation Entertainment gives this digital package a push toward completeness by adding interviews with all three filmmakers, as well as behind the scenes glimpses of how each movie was made. By looking at these bits of added content in conjunction with the film itself, we begin to understand the motive behind each episode and realize how such seemingly obtuse approaches can lead to some potent metropolitan maxims.
In the end, our newly arrived couple appear content - or at the very least, one half seems resolved to play her part. The Monster is quelled, and lessons are learned that many couldn’t have easily anticipated when the fiend first made his merciless presence known. And while the city might fall - or simply crumble under the influence of numerous geological aftershocks - at least two people have seen the light - or more literally, stepped out of the darkness of their own self-made world long enough to realize it’s safe…sort of. In truth, these could be the stories of any urban landscape - New York, Mexico City, or San Paolo. But within the specific culture of Tokyo! , a trio of directors found the kind of inspiration that unlocks a thousand ideas. Luckily, the talent involved only needed a few to come up with something special.