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Tokyo Stories – from the weird to the wonderful

Yumi Endo - "Doki-Doki"
by Brian Mckay

PRESENTED BY THE 2004 SAN FRANCISCO ASIAN-AMERICAN FILM FESTIVAL: Shorts are a curious anomaly in the world of film. They often escape critical exposure or marketing support because films lasting only 10-20 minutes, and which are often experimental in nature, are simply not as easy (or as profitable) to package and distribute as a full-length feature would be. And yet, many short films can be as entertaining and even moving as their feature-length counterparts.

Short films seem to do their best, at least in the festival circuit, when they are displayed alongside of other shorts that are centered around a theme. Although not every film presented in Tokyo Stories was from or even about Tokyo, each film had a distinctly Japanese flavor. Even the smallest of films are worthy of recognition, simply due to the care and work that have gone into them, and so here is a brief accounting of Tokyo Stories.

Mt. Head
DIRECTOR: Koji Yamamura

This bizarre but hilarious animated short tells the story of a stingy old man who eats a cherry seed and begins to sprout a cherry tree out of his head. Much to his chagrin, the top of his bald head becomes a popular picnic spot for Tokyo residents looking for a place to take a break in the shade (told you it was weird). The animation, while a bit jarring and rough around the edges (by design) has a unique Japanese sense of style not seen anywhere else (especially in the often cookie-cutter world of conventional Anime’).
****-4 stars

Room Service
DIRECTOR: Junji Kojima

A woman returns to her Tokyo hotel room after a busy day of shopping, only to realize that she has no idea how she is going to fit all of her purchases into her spare suitcase. After thumbing through the phone directory, she sees a number for a packing service, and before she can even dial the phone, the room service man is knocking at her door. Quickly sizing up the stacks of boxes with terminator-like skills (including visualizing exact measurements for each box and shuffling them around with the precision of mental 3-D modeling), he quickly and easily packs everything into the suitcase with a machine-like flurry of speed. However, his skills are put to the test on subsequent visits, as the woman keeps digging into the case to retrieve something she needs and messing up his perfect package placement.
Although completely bereft of dialogue, the film is long on laughs thanks to a variety of amusing facial expressions exchanged between these two characters. Filmed in a single room on a shoestring budget and in probably no more than a couple of days, Room Service was funnier than a lot of feature length “comedies” to come out of Hollywood in recent memory.
****-4 stars

Fish Never Sleep
DIRECTOR: Gaelle Denis

Naoko, who runs a sushi restaurant, can’t sleep. After weeks of insomnia that no remedy can cure, she takes a late-night motorbike ride and inadvertently ends up trying a snooze with the fishes. Although this French-made animation is fairly basic, it does have a visual style reminiscent of a Japanese tapestry painting. Even for a short film, however, it tends to meander a bit, and the choice of having a woman with a French accent provide the voice narration for a Japanese character feels out of place.
***- 3 stars

Tokyo Equinox
DIRECTOR: Yuri Makino

Yuri Makino and her sister, both of Japanese and American descent, return to Japan to visit their father, whom they have not seen for several years. After a long train ride and a bout of sightseeing, they finally meet up with their estranged father and his wife for a bittersweet reunion.
Although the film’s blurry and slow-mo visual style (used to impart a “dreamlike” quality, according to Makino) are overused to distraction, and the film gets off to a really slow start, there is a distinct sense of poignancy and closure that follows the reunion with their father. That emotional connection (and some great visuals of Japan) becomes the film’s saving grace.
***-3 stars

Doki-Doki
DIRECTOR: Chris Eska

The centerpiece of Tokyo Stories is so good, it merits a separate review – simply wonderful.
(http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=8845&reviewer=258)
*****-5 stars

Showa Shinzan
DIRECTOR: Alison Reiko Loader

This is the story of a little Japanese girl who is sent to live in a rural area with her grandparents during the height of the war. However, being far removed from the front lines is no guarantee of safety, since her grandparents’ village rests in the shadow of a once-dormant volcano that now threatens to erupt at any time.
The Canadian-made Showa Shinzan is presented in the visual style of a puppet show – only the marionettes are 3D-modeled computer animations. The beautiful visuals are only slightly hampered by an English voice-over narration that at times feels flat and distant. Again, a Japanese voice-over with English subtitles might have been more dramatically sound.
****-4 stars

God Bless America
DIRECTOR: Tadasu Takamine

What can I say – they can’t all be winners. This strange little confection is an experiment in claymation filmed in time-lapse. A giant clay head sits in the middle of an apartment where a couple alternately works on the head, socializes, sleeps, and has sex, as several days of activity flash by in mere moments. Meanwhile, the head constantly undergoes bizarre and often funny mutations (sometimes under the hands of its creators, sometimes all on its own) and occasionally bursts into a grating, high-pitched rendition of “God Bless America” before falling silent for a moment and then repeating the process. This goes on for a seemingly interminable nine minutes, and while it’s occasionally funny out of sheer quirkiness, the novelty wears off very quickly. Maybe it’s just because I was never a huge fan of claymation to begin with (except for the Gumby and Pokey show – but hey, I was only FIVE). Besides, it took me hours to get that annoying singing out of my head.
** - 2 stars

Tokyo Stories captures the flavor of a city that can often be quite bizarre, yet is more than redeemed by its sense of style, humor, and humanity.


link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=1046
originally posted: 03/10/04 09:42:19
last updated: 11/04/04 11:28:15
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