Note: I have since reviewed the DVD of Tokyo!. This review reflects my initial experience, and the "feature" part of my DVD review is a revision based on a second viewing.
I can still remember how hyped up I was for Lionsgate's 2005 release Three...Extremes, which snagged Fruit Chan, Takashi Miike, and personal favorite Park Chan-Wook for a trilogy of horror stories. Unfortunately, it was a massive letdown; not even Chan-Wook's "Cut" segment could raise my flagging interest. So when I heard about Tokyo! luring Leos Carax, Bong Joon-Ho and my all-time favorite director Michel Gondry for three stories about Japan's bustling capital city, I kept my expectations in check. Luckily, although the city itself doesn't really inform any of the three directors, there's some cinematic magic in each one of the movie's segments.
The stories break down as follows. "Interior Design" concerns Akira (Ryo Kase) and Hiroko (Ayako Fujitani), a couple moving to Tokyo for the first time. Staying at the tiny apartment of their friend Akemi (Ayumi Ito), the days stretch into weeks as a sense of uncertainty grips Hiroko about her place in life. "Merde" tracks the rampage of a mysterious creature who inhabits the city's sewers and occasionally pops up to wreak havoc, much to the excitement of the local news. When the creature is caught, a like-minded lawyer (Jean-François Balmer) appears to defend him and his violent and disturbing actions. Lastly, "Shaking Tokyo" tells the story of a hikikomori (Teryuki Kagawa), or shut-in, who's been hiding away inside his apartment for ten years. When an earthquake and a beautiful pizza girl (Yû Aoi) collide on his doorstep, his sense of isolation is interrupted, and he begins to wonder what he's been missing in the outside world.
What I like about Gondry is his surreal, yet oddly sensical ideas, each with a tiny tinge of neurotic worry. In his opening segment, aspiring director Akira wonders aloud about flat ghosts living in the tiny gaps between all the buildings in the city, and you can hear Gondry's voice in it. "I could use tissue paper for them," he muses. Akira's directing doesn't seem to be very good, but he's certainly ambitious. He brings a smoke machine to the premiere of his black-and-white time travel film at a local porno theater, and pumps real smoke into the auditorium whenever smoke is shown on screen, which is to say every shot. He's a bit of a clueless drifter, but his girlfriend Hiroko (Ayako Fujitani) is the opposite. She feels the burden she's placing on her friend Akemi as their search for a home drags on. "You have no ambition," Akira tells her when telling Akemi how she turned down a role in his movie, and it eats away at her. The segment builds too slowly as Gondry puts the audience in Hiroko's stressed-out shoes, but the payoff is wonderful, like the second half of Chungking Express if it came from another universe.
The surprise for myself was Bong Joon-Ho's "Shaking Tokyo"; it's final short but the best of the bunch. Teryuki Kagawa's apartment is tiny but dazzling. Perfectly-aligned towers of pizza boxes loom over his living room, a pyramid of toilet paper rolls climb the wall of his bathroom, and each and every nook and cranny is precisely stocked with a beer can or a Cup of Noodles. After the earthquake, everything is crooked, right down to The Man's emotional core. The pizza delivery girl lies unconscious in his doorway. He blows on her sleeve, thinking he sees the edge of a tattoo, but underneath there are strange buttons on her skin. He reaches out and touches one that looks like a computer power button, and makes an unexpected connection he's been missing for so long. The romantic sentiment in this segment rings a little hollow, but the human connection is still palpable and the rest is funny, surprising, dazzling and exhilarating. I've been putting off watching Joon-Ho's critically acclaimed monster film The Host for awhile now, but not anymore.
Only the second chapter, Leos Carax's short "Merde" was a disappointment to me. Watching "The Creature From the Sewers" (Denis Lavant) climb up and start wreaking havoc in an almost unbroken long shot walking down a Tokyo street is dementedly funny. He's a one-man Godzilla, grabbing crutches from disabled passerby, wolfing down flowers and later tossing decades-old grenades around haphazardly, and Carax uses his exploits to take a few uncofused shots at the nature of war and the exploitative media. Balmer's lawyer character, however, brings the piece to a grinding, boring halt with a string of endless sequences where Balmer, acting as translator, yells gibberish back and forth between Lavant and a host of irritated, bloodthirsty cops. It's definitely not terrible, but it's the slowest part of the movie.
Each of the directors has an eye for what they want to do with the city of Tokyo. Gondry's vision is pretty straightforward; he showcases some quirky buildings but makes it seem like a regular metropolis (all the more intimidating for the young couple who isn't ready to grow up). Carax's look is more rough, with choppy digital video, cold grays and dark sewers, and clinically clean interiors and dark-suited businessmen. In the final segment, you see more of The Man's mathematically perfect apartment than you do of anything at first, but outside the front door lays a blindingly bright overload of information, a maze of signs and numbers on every conceivable surface. I'd guess this range of vision is what appealed to the directors, but while Tokyo is a melting pot like few other places in the world, there's little reason the movie couldn't have happened somewhere else (Gondry even draws from a graphic novel titled Cecil and Jordan in New York).
The problem with most short films is that they try to tell a story, but the confines of a 32-minute block in a feature-length film doesn't leave enough room for a three-act-structure. The three filmmakers of Tokyo! opt instead to focus on the emotional and visual impact of their pieces, and that willingness to do something more loose and experimental makes all the difference. There are amazing things in this movie, even in the unsuccessful parts, and fans of any one or all three of these directors should leave feeling that it was worth the trip.
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