Using the Japanese capital as the catalyst for inspiration, three dynamic directors generate a trio of bittersweet, entertaining and captivating short films which comprise “Tokyo!”
Michel Gondry makes films with all 64 crayons in the box. They are colorful and playful, chockfull of whimsy but wistful and pensive as well. He can lavish the screen with opulent shades of Cornflower, Goldenrod and Magenta, but he’s just as likely to coat his movies with penumbras of Periwinkle, Outer Space and Burnt Sienna.
In “Interior Design,” a young couple moves to Tokyo and Gondry exhibits his extensive palette in the melancholy tale. Akira (Ryo Kase) is a recent art-school graduate and aspiring filmmaker while his girlfriend, Hiroko (Ayako Fujitani), arrives in the city with no particular path of her own. They crash at her childhood chum’s cramped apartment and Gondry squeezes the claustrophobia. While Akira begins to find a foothold as he rents a porno theater and screens his serious, stilted “The Garden of Degradation” replete with a smoke machine that works too well, Hiroko becomes a peripheral figure in the haze. She tries to surreptitiously retrieve their impounded car from a cavernous lot. But this only seems to make her more superfluous. “Interior Design” acutely and serenely captures the way a couple can move to a new town but they haven’t moved together; they’re not in the same place.
Yet, even in moments of heartbreak there’s a fanciful quality to Gondry’s work. And Hiroko undergoes a beguilingly classic Gondry transformation which blends the sweet and the poignant. (It’s as though he’s reminding viewers that when ice cream falls to the ground, there’s still the cone to enjoy.) Wherever he goes, he finds the sanguine in fractured lives.
Leos Carax earned a contentious reputation at the turn of this century with the sexually explicit “Pola X.” It was littered with arresting images, unsettling themes and enough pretension to become wearying. “Merde” adopts a decidedly lighter tone while still veering ever-so-slightly towards overstaying its welcome despite the shorter form.
In the most parabolic of the three films, a bedraggled creature emerges from the sewers to terrorize Tokyo. Resembling a cockeyed Chuck Manson, Merde (Denis Lavant) imperviously stomps down a fashionable street in a green suit two sizes too small indecipherably mumbling as shoppers recoil. (It’s slightly reminiscent of Lavant‘s incoherent ramble in Jonathan Glazer’s video for Unkle‘s “Rabbit in Your Headlights.”) At first the grungy hermit shoves shoppers to the pavement but then armed with a cache of weapons he murders indiscriminately. Quickly captured, he is brought to trial where his gibberish language of grunts and hand flicks is only understood by Maître Voland, a theatrical French solicitor (Jean-Francois Balmer) and a claw-nailed, scruffy-bearded doppelganger, who flies in from Paris on a camera-hogging expedition. (The courtroom sequence is quite humorous, both intentionally and, one surmises, unintentionally. More like Norse code than Morse.)
Of the three, it’s the movie which feels least about Tokyo itself. This is an allegory about big city fears; in this case the fear 35 million Tokyoites have of homicidal French leprechauns. Merde is sent to the gallows, but by the final title card he’s on his way to New York. Tour stops in London, Sydney and Kuala Lumpur to surely follow.
In 2006, Bong Joon-ho released “The Host.” The expert monster flick nicely melded action sequences, special effects and tender moments as the slinky mutant water creature traumatized Seoul. It was the type of gourmet popcorn action film that Hollywood should be making. Despite the ominous tone of this segment’s title, Bong crafts an elegiac short film about an introverted man’s awakening that shares “The Host”’s eye for detail without a rampaging behemoth in sight. “Shaking Tokyo” possesses the tranquility of a watercolor.
For more than ten years, the protagonist, a hikkomori (the stellar Teruyuki Kagawa), has lived withdrawn from social life. Gripped by an affliction like a paralyzing agoraphobia, the hikkomori’s only contact with the outside world is when he pensively opens his door for his weekly Saturday pizza delivery.
Bong creates compelling compositions with precise framing and camera angles. The camera delicately scans his fastidious home — the spotless kitchen, the austere bathroom and the neatly stacked wall of pizza boxes. The layout of the scenes is punctilious. When the pizza delivery girl (Yu Aoi) faints unexpectedly during a relatively benign earthquake which is more like a tremor, the camera retreats to the corner of the living room and offers a view of the foyer where she lies; but it’s wide enough to sweep across the living room and then along a hallway through which he dashes momentarily into an unseen room. The panoramic perspective heightens the sense that he is crushed by the opposing forces of his incessant isolation and his abiding desire to help her. Like Akira Kurosawa, Bong frames each shot meticulously but it’s not just mathematical. It allows the emotion emitted from the close-up of an eyebrow’s hint of an epiphany to resonate powerfully. With such exquisite attention, this beautiful film of a man conquering his most debilitating fear doesn’t seem premeditated; it feels magical.