Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 04/20/09 14:57:43

"The trippiest place on Earth!"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Typically, anthology films like "Tokyo!" will focus on looking at a subject, whether that be an idea or (as in recent projects like "Paris, je t'aime") a city from multiple angles to see it as a whole, generally with some amount of affection. "Tokyo!", by contrast, finds all three directors apparently so struck by the enormity of the city that they are forced to resort to surrealism to describe what the place is like.

It's not immediately apparent that this is where Michel Gondry is going in "Interior Design" (based upon Gabrielle Bell's bande dessiné "Cecil and Jordan in New York"). Akira (Ryo Kase) and Hiroko (Ayako Fujitani) have come to the city to play Akira's art-house science fiction film in a place that turns out to be an adult theater. Their friend Akemi (Ayumi Ito) tells them that they can stay at her tiny apartment while they look for a place of their own, but that turns out to be slow going; even a place as tiny as Akemi's is out of their price range. And when Hiroko finds out how happy Akemi really is to have them there...

Well, at that point things get strange. Not that they weren't before - Gondry has already given us a peculiar film within a film, a tour of the city's occasionally strange architecture, and workplace humor from Akira's new job wrapping packages at a department store ("they want me to wrap five boxes instead of four from a single sheet! It can't be done!") - but this is outright strange, with transformations and bizarre puppetry and special effects. It gets silly and absurd, but also sad. Ayako Fujitani is note-perfect as Hiroko, sad but also funny.

Leos Carax's "Merde" starts out strange from the get-go, as the title character (Denis Lavant), with his lightning-bolt beard, milky eye, and curved fingernails, crawls out of a manhole and starts harassing people on the streets of Tokyo before diving back into the sewers. Funny, until he finds a cache of WWII hand grenades and starts lobbing them around a train station. Only three people on Earth speak his language, one of them being Maître Voland (Jean-François Balmer), the lawyer who comes in from France to defend him.

This is easily the zaniest of the shorts, and pretty funny if you like your humor dark and weird. Merde's language is gibberish, Voland is a bizarre mirror image of him, and the news coverage of the rampages and trials is deadpan perfect. As long as Carax is just going for black comedy, that works, but Carax opts to make Merde not just being an exemplar of extreme alienation or hostility, but something more. The short winds up ending as if presenting us with something profound, but for the life of me, I couldn't say what it was.

Finally, Bong Joon-ho brings us "Shaking Japan", featuring Teruyuki Kagawa as a nameless hikikomori (one who isolates himself in his home for months, if not years, at a time) who has not ventured outside in eleven years, and indeed has not even made eye-contact with the delivery people who bring his food for nearly as long. One day he does glance up at the pretty girl delivering his pizza (Yu Aoi), only to have her collapse in his entryway. He awakens her (by pushing a button marked "coma" tattooed on her skin), and looks forward to seeing her again, only to find out she has become hikikomori herself.

"Shaking Japan" is the most Japan-specific story of the anthology, and probably the sweetest. Kagawa's character narrates for us, and while he doesn't explain why he retreated from the world in the first place, he does a great job of showing us his confusion and determination to break out once he sees a reason. Bong is clever in how he portrays Tokyo here - not as overcrowded, but empty, emphasizing that all people have the impulse to become hikikomori, and that modern life may be driving us toward it.

It's perhaps telling that none of the three directors are Japanese - there is nothing like Satoshi Miki's Adrift in Tokyo which knows and celebrates the city as a native might. Instead, we see the city frightening people - Hiroko becoming something else to fit in, Merde lashing out in hatred, the hikikomori refusing to venture outside for a decade. For all that, the movie doesn't hate Tokyo; the segments form a story arc of coming to terms with the place: Retreat, attack, and rapprochement. All three stories are more or less the right length, telling a full but compact story, and none dominates the others enough for a given segment to feel diminished. The visuals are nifty, too, giving the audience tastes of the fantastic without completely disconnecting us from the real world.

As much as I'd still like to know what Carax was getting at with "Merde", I found the other two segments fairly delightful. Tokyo's a place I've long wanted to visit, and while I don't think "Tokyo!" tells me much about that far-off city, it will likely speak to anyone who has been been hit with the sort of culture shock that I imagine Tokyo as dishing out.

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