Tuesday, July 28, 2009


Tokyo! is a multi-director anthology in which three directors — Frenchmen Michel Gondry and Leos Carax and Korean Bong Joon-ho — present three individual short films, linked only by their shared setting and their different approaches to odd, surrealistic storytelling. Gondry's film is first, a quietly moving short called Interior Design, based on the great short story "Cecil and Jordan in New York" by comic artist Gabrielle Bell, who co-wrote the film with Gondry. The film is about Hiroko (Ayako Fujitani) and her filmmaker boyfriend Akira (Ryo Kase), who go to Tokyo in order to screen Akira's low-budget film and to make a start for themselves in the city. When they first arrive, they move in with Hiroko's friend Akemi (Ayumi Ito), staying in her cramped apartment while trying to find a place for themselves as well. Things are difficult, however, since only Akira is able to get a part-time job, their car is ticketed and finally impounded, and every apartment they look at is tiny and miserable. Hiroko is increasingly aimless in the city, wandering around, growing frustrated, sensing Akira's growing distance from her (and attraction to her friend Akemi instead) and sensing also Akemi's aggravation that the couple has been taking advantage of her hospitality for so long.

At this point, Hiroko undergoes a startling change, turning into a plain wooden chair. She initially runs through the streets in a panic as her legs become thin wooden sticks, but she soon becomes used to her situation, accepting and even enjoying it. She's taken home by a young musician, and stays a chair at night when he's home, while transforming back into a girl during the day so she can do what she wants, puttering around his apartment. Gondry treats the offhand surrealism of the story with much the same attitude as Bell's original comic, in which the heroine's transformation into a chair is accomplished in three panels, accompanied by the casual narration, "and so I changed myself into a chair." Other than transplanting the characters from Brooklyn to Tokyo, Gondry expands upon the original story while keeping to its basic thrust. The actual initial moment of transformation is more dramatic here, with some stunning special effects to show Hiroko's gradual process of becoming a chair.

More importantly, however, Gondry fills in the subtexts of the original story, which is about loneliness and the feeling of being ignored. Hiroko feels like she is "just the girlfriend" to Akira, who isn't exactly a successful filmmaker but still gets more attention as an "artist," while Hiroko feels left out, useless, without purpose in her life. Her transformation is thus an attempt to become valuable, to become something with a concrete use. She becomes a chair, strictly utilitarian, essential and important and yet also ordinary. It's a bittersweet, clever little film, quiet in its emotions and subtle in the way it allows its metaphors to play out. The relationship between Akira and Hiroko is portrayed well by the two young actors, who laugh and joke with one another; their relationship seems to be built on in-jokes and goofing around. They're young and not yet taking life seriously. They turn everything into a game, even serious problems like checking their finances to see how they can afford an apartment. And they're ill-prepared to really talk to one another, particularly Akira, who's too tied up in his goofy art films to really pay much attention to his girlfriend.

Hiroko's transformation is thus an escape, from a life of being ignored, and also from a life of encroaching responsibilities. She has a childlike sense of play — she sits around cutting pictures out of magazines and making collages or awkward origami — and she doesn't want to lose her little "hobbies," which for her define what she wants from the world. She doesn't want to have "ambition," as Akira keeps urging her. She just wants someone to think she's useful; she wants to feel like she has a place in the world. By the end of the film, she does. This is a wonderful, affecting film, one that does justice to one of cartoonist Bell's best stories.

The second film in this anthology is Leos Carax's incredibly strange Merde. This short opens with the titular character (Denis Lavant), emerging from a manhole cover, filthy and wild-looking in a green suit, with frizzy hair, a milky white eye, and a red beard curving off to one side like a scythe's blade. He has been dubbed "the creature from the sewers," and like a true movie monster he terrorizes the city's inhabitants, initially in bizarre, amusing ways like grabbing their cigarettes, licking them, or stealing and eating flowers and cash. But Merde's reign of terror soon becomes much darker when he emerges from the sewers with a cache of grenades he discovered beneath the streets, and begins throwing them frantically around in the streets, killing and maiming dozens of people and destroying cars and property all around him. Merde is then captured and placed on trial, defended by a visiting French lawyer, Voland (Jean-François Balmer), who is his mirror image, with a milky white eye and curved red beard, and one of the only people in the world who actually speaks Merde's guttural, gibberish language.

This film is unsettling and ambiguous, making intentional references to Japanese monster movies and their relationship to Japan's history as the only nation to be hit with a nuclear bomb, as well as exploring obvious parallels to the modern American-led "war on terror." At one point, a news broadcast asserts that Merde had once been spotted at an Al-Qaeda training camp. At his trial, the audience is filled with people with burn marks on their faces, or their heads swathed in bandages, looking like Hiroshima survivors. The film is a dense collage of references and possible meanings, incorporating stereotypical Japanese images as conceived by a Westerner, like the people at the trial who wear surgical masks or the Japanese schoolgirl who drops her coat, revealing a skimpy outfit underneath, when Merde attacks her. These images are like fever-dreams of Japan, conceived in the West through the prism of the little Japanese culture — monster movies, anime and manga, J-pop — that's popularly visible outside of Japan.

This is fitting, because one of the film's primary themes is the disconnection that comes with multiple languages and multiple cultures. Throughout the second half of the short, the entirety of the dialogue is heard three times, once in Japanese, once in French, and once in the nonsense language spoken only by Merde and Voland. This constant translation and repetition is required for everyone to understand everyone else, and the process becomes even more complex when subtitles are incorporated for audiences who speak neither French nor Japanese. The film is at least partly about the difficulty of understanding others, of grasping the thought processes behind people who seem grotesque, threatening and unusual. Is Merde insane? Is he a "racist," as one Japanese lawyer calls him? Is he a misanthrope? Is he ugly, or is he, as he says his "gorgeous" mother called him, "a pretty little boy?" Carax leaves everything ambiguous and tonally confused, constantly vacillating between outlandish horror and offbeat dark humor. This is especially apparent in the bizarre ending, in which an intertitle, superimposed over an image of a five-dollar bill with Abraham Lincoln disfigured to resemble Merde, promises further adventures of Merde in New York: "Merde in USA," a deadpan riff on Godard's Made In USA. Carax's weird, open-ended short never settles its multiple allegorical meanings and ideas, but it's an interesting, unforgettable film nevertheless.

The final short here is the most traditional and straightforward, as well as the one short that engages in a serious way with the nature of Japanese culture. Whereas the first two shorts, both by Westerners, could probably have been set anywhere and made just as much sense, Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho's Shaking Tokyo is more explicitly a film about Tokyo and Japan as a whole. It's the story of a "hikikomori," a Japanese word for a recluse who lives off his parents and never leaves his house, keeping his garbage carefully organized in stacks, spending his time reading and doing nothing. The unnamed central character, played by Teruyuki Kagawa, has not left his apartment in eleven years. Every year he receives a wad of money from his father, and otherwise his only contact with the outside world is his limited interaction with the delivery people who bring food and other things to his home. He never looks anyone in the eyes, simply handing over money and getting a pizza or a package in exchange.

This changes when he happens to make eye contact with a pizza delivery girl (Yû Aoi) who comes to his apartment. While steadfastly looking down, handing over his money as he takes the pizza, he catches sight of her garter belt and the thin strip of bare leg below her skirt, and it startles him into looking up at her face. At this moment, as though this man's isolation was unable to withstand such bracing contact with another person, Tokyo suffers an earthquake that shakes some of the man's possessions out of their perfect arrangements, and causes the girl to collapse on the floor in his foyer. The film's first magical realist touch is the man's discovery that the collapsed girl, who can't be woken, has dotted her body with tattoos of various buttons, indicating moods and conditions: sadness, hysteria, fear. Intrigued, he discovers a button on her exposed thigh, the spot that had so distracted him from his usually resolute avoidance of eye contact, that is marked "coma." He presses the button and the girl promptly wakes up.

This event changes the man, who soon learns that the girl, after meeting him and seeing his compulsively neat apartment, his splendid isolation, has decided to become a hikikomori as well. He thus decides to break his eleven-year isolation and venture out amongst the people of Tokyo. Instead, he finds a surreally abandoned city, its streets empty, its people staying inside — only a smiley-faced robot, delivering pizza, is visible on the streets. The man sees a woman standing behind a frosted glass door and tries to speak with her, but she simply fades back into the darkness, her ghostly form dissolving behind the glass as she steps backward. The film is a low-key examination of the isolation and disconnection of people living in a big, impersonal city like Tokyo. It's a haunting vision of a city full of people who all decide, spontaneously and all at once, to withdraw from other people, to remain in their own self-contained spaces, to avoid the crowds and the sunlight and the noise of Tokyo when it's full of people. The man's journey through this deserted metropolis becomes an attempt to find some connection, some link with another person, a reason to leave the house.

This final film isn't as adventurous or unusual as the first two, and its ending threatens to be excessively cute and hokey, but it's still an interesting short, worthwhile for the way its clever touches of imagination blend with its deadpan chronicle of everyday routine. As a whole, Tokyo! is a great collection. Its three shorts have little to do with one another, and they don't exactly fit together into a comprehensive statement of any kind, least of all about the title city — but then, why should they? Taken individually, each of these shorts is intriguing and entertaining in equal measures, and that's more than enough.


Rick Olson said...

Ed, I liked these three shorts a lot as well. Especially Carax's piece which is, as you say, "incredibly strange." You describe its melange of styles and themes about as well as can be expected. It's a lot packed into thirty minutes.

Sam Juliano said...

I agree the Korean finale is the weakest of the three, even if ironically it should have been the most perceptive. But with Gondry and Carax, you have formidable talents, which in the latter case probed bneath the surface ambiguities. My favorite though is the Gondry segmant.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks for the comments, Rick and Sam. Gondry's film was my personal favorite, at least partially because of what a great job it did fleshing out a Gabrielle Bell comic that I've loved for a long time, ever since I saw it in the comics anthology Kramer's Ergot. The knowledge that Bell's piece informed Interior Design was the main reason I wanted to see this anthology in the first place. Of course, Carax's film is an oddball pleasure of its own, too. And the final film, though definitely lesser, isn't without its own charms. Sam, I do think it was the most perceptive of the three about Japanese culture, it's just that as a film it wasn't nearly as successful or inventive.

Sam Juliano said...

"Sam, I do think it was the most perceptive of the three about Japanese culture, it's just that as a film it wasn't nearly as successful or inventive."

Yes, indeed Ed, I do agree with that completely.