Tuesday, August 11, 2009


Before I saw Tokyo! I had heard that the three short films that make it up had nothing in common other than the common location of Tokyo but I was pleasantly surprised to find that they complement each other quite well. Each film is about a character who is unable to adapt to the society of which he or she is a part and the alienation which results. Each film also has elements that are surreal or at least unreal. Further, each protagonist in the films uses a different coping mechanism to deal with his/her surroundings; the film illustrates the effects of these mechanisms.

Part 1: Interior Design (Michel Gondry) This film is about a young couple who moves to Tokyo so the man can pursue his dream of becoming a filmmaker. At the beginning of the film Hiroko (the girl) is happy with her own abilities: she's somewhat artistically inclined but she has no desire to art a career. Her boyfriend criticizes her lack of ambition and she is shaken out of her complacency. To prove that she is of some use to him, Hiroko decides to apply for a retail job. Unfortunately, she goes too far in attempting to prove her worth and tries something she isn't capable of and her boyfriend ends up getting the job he didn't even really want or need. So Hiroko's in a new city with a boyfriend who is too busy working on his film and his retail job to spend any time with her and to make matters worst she is unable to find an apartment for them. As time goes on the friend she is staying with becomes impatient to be rid of them both, even explaining to another person that Hiroko (and not the boyfriend) is the problem. Gondry does an amazing job of conveying Hiroko's feelings of self doubt and worthlessness; he really builds a lot of sympathy for her in a short amount of time. Eventually, Hiroko's feelings are literalized in a surrealistic fashion as she is transformed into a piece of furniture. Her coping mechanism is becoming something less than she could be and it works to a certain extent but it also means giving up everything she ever cared about and a good part of her humanity.

Part 2: Merde (Leos Carax) This film opens with the deformed sewer dweller who comes to be called Merde crawling out of a manhole and terrorizing pedestrians on a busy Tokyo street. His hatred for mankind plays itself out humorously in this early scene: he steals things like cigarettes, crutches, and flowers from these people and introduces an element of chaos into their lives before disappearing in yet another manhole. Later on he finds some kind of abandoned subterranean military station and discovers that there is a box of live grenades there. When he next emerges it's night time and he isn't so funny anymore: he kills dozens of innocent people with these explosives. Eventually he is tried for this and he reveals his hatred for mankind in general and the Japanese specifically. He further explains that his god has ordered him to punish them for raping his mother. Merde's coping mechanism is hatred for the society he can't find a place in and his subsequent violence guarantees that he never will find a place there. This film is the least effective of the three because Merde comes across as too bizarre and unknowable to inspire sympathy and of course his actions are the most reprehensible.

Part 3: Shaking Tokyo (Joon-ho Bong) Joon-ho Bong's contribution to this cinematic triptych is the story of a hikikomori, a uniquely Japanese type of hermit. This particular man hasn't left his house in ten or eleven years. He seems perfectly content to make art of the paper products (books, pizza boxes, toilet paper rolls) he uses: he explains that he doesn't like interacting with other people or sunlight. The former is clearly exhibited by his practice of never looking at the faces of the countless delivery people who make his lifestyle possible and the latter is made clear through the dilapidated exterior which creates a sharp counterpoint to his home's fastidious interior. One day after ten years he looks into the eyes of the pizza girl and the ground literally begins to shake: this literalization of a saying is repeated several times in the film as he eventually finds the courage to leave his apartment to see the girl again. The Tokyo of this film is the most surreal of the three, the streets are completely deserted and it seems that most people are just as alienated as our protagonist, at least until another earthquake drives them out. Bong's direction is excellent in this one as there is some really great camera work and an outstanding use of visual repetition in the beginning as well as long takes and jumpcuts near the end. This protagonist's coping mechanism is shutting himself off from the world; apparently it's the most effective of the three as his decade of hibernation ends with him emerging from his cocoon and seeking out a new relationship.

The film as a whole is stronger than the sum of its parts and the theme of alienation is made all the stronger by the fact that each of these filmmakers approaches Tokyo with the outsider perspective of a foreigner.

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