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Tokyo! (Michel Gondry, Joon-ho Bong, Leos Carax 2008)




Genre: Tokyo-scape Triptych of Self-Realization

review in one breath

TOKYO! is an anthology of three short films by directors Michel Gondry (France), Leos Carax (France) and Joon-ho Bong (Korea), each of whom offers an imaginative and transnatural/supernatural glimpse into the Tokyo Megapolis. In the same fashion the internationally released collections of Three (2002) and Three Extreme (2004) consist of similarly-themed triptychs by well-known (Asian) directors, TOKYO! takes things two steps further. First, this anthology deals solely with Japan. Each short film's setting is in Tokyo, the primary language is Japanese, and the cast of each features predominantly Japanese actors, many of whom J-Film fans will recognize. Second, two of the three directors are Western (French). TOKYO! is currently being screened in the 2008 International Film Festival, but I assume it will soon be more widely released.


The (44th) Chicago International Film Festival has just wrapped up. This year's collection included four "Japanese" films, three of which are by Japanese directors. They are:

ICE (dir. Makoto Kobayashi)
Tokyo Sonata (dir. Kiyoshi Kurosawa)
Waltz in Starlight [Hoshikageno Waltz] (dir. Shingo Wakagi)

The fourth "Japanese" film, entitled TOKYO! is what I would like to talk about here, specifically because TOKYO! follows a new trend, earlier exemplified by such films as Tekkon Kinkreet and Kaojikara, pushing the envelope of blur between the defintions of Japanese and Western film.

Western directors' fascination with Japanese film has historically manifested itself in "adaptation". This is where the strength and intrigue of the narrative allows the tale to be imported, reconfigured and re-imagined within wholly different characters, settings and eras. Well known examples of this include the adaptations of director Akira Kurosawa's work into such seminal Western films as "Magnificent Seven" (1960) and "Fistful of Dollars" (1964).

More recently, the phenomenon of globally popular Japanese (horror) films has led to the (generally disappointing) practice of "remakes" by Western directors. Here, the director attempts to (rather strictly) retell the original tale, but as seen through western characters' eyes. For this reason, U.S. versions of such films as "Ring" and "Grudge", starring blond blue-eyed Caucasians, populate the shelf of your local video shop.

A third, more independent strain of mimicry can be seen (and enjoyed) in the work of certain directors such as Quentin Tarantino whose fascination with the genre itself has resulted in quasi-Japanese aesthetics (and action). The classic example here would be "Kill Bill", the narrative of which is wholly Western but whose explicit tribute to the exemplars of its Japanese origins is obvious.

Only in the last several years have we really seen a new, effective fourth category, where works by Western directors present themselves as Japanese films. These films cast predominantly Japanese talent and present their dialogue and narration entirely in Japanese. And yet Western writers, producers and animators are at their core. From all appearances they seem to be Japanese films, but their western origins can sometimes offer the (somewhat) unique perspective of an outsider.

TOKYO! falls into this fourth category. It is comprised of three short films by three different directors; two French and one Korean. Each film presents itself as completely Japanese in terms of language, location and characters. Determining whether the message or moral of each is similarly "Japanese" is part of the fun of seeing such a film. Below are brief summaries of each in the order they appeared in the collection.

plot summaries

Interior Design (dir. Michel Gondry, 2008)

A young twenty-something boyfriend and girlfriend travel from their small town to Tokyo in the hope of finding success through the boyfriend's efforts of becoming a film producer. They shack up with a female high school friend in her small one-room urban apartment while they search for their own place and prepare for the screening of his "film debut". But Tokyo quickly proves a formidable and difficult place. Naive hope quickly turns sour when the cost of living well is far above their means, the theater they booked for their "debut" turns out to be a dilapidated porn theater, and their car, along with all their film equipment is towed away.

The focal point of the narrative rests upon the young woman, who strives to be a supportive and contributing partner to her boyfriend, but in the quick-paced and superficial environ of Tokyo finds herself unable to control even her own fate. Faced first with insecurity regarding her job skills, she soon must deal with the questionable reliability of her boyfriend.

Far from home and fully realizing her predicament, she transforms into something which both exemplifies and accomplishes her innermost desire.


You may know director Michel Gondry from his other, more mainstream films, "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" (2004), "The Science of Sleep" (2006) and "Be Kind, Rewind" (2008). Here he admittedly undertakes (as both writer and director) a very different type of project using virtually unknown talent. The majority of this tale rests upon believable and often comedic dialogue or non-verbal action scenes depicting relational (or existential) tension. As mentioned above, Gondry's conclusion/resolution to this tension involves the physical, dream-like tranformation of the character.

Although the depiction of physical transformation into symbolic objects is nothing new, particularly in Japanese film (see "Tetsuro: Iron Man" for an iconic example), Gondry is able to maintain/create his characteristic style of visualizing the surreal. He wisely avoids the impression of Horror and instead provides something both sad and joyful simultaneously; Sad in the fact that this industrious, unappreciated young woman is pushed to such a limit, and yet joyful in how she ultimately finds an intimate and fulfilling role for herself.

This, at least, is how the film suggests it. I spoke with a woman as we walked out of the theater and she remarked on how Gondry had depicted the young woman's aspirations in an over-simplified, rather old-fashioned manner as if her life's meaning was somehow defined by her being (merely) useful to a male character. Indeed, this could easily be seen as the film's basic message. But I felt there were several, highly visible elements in the storyline which balanced out such a "simplistic" reading, not least of which was the film's portrayal of female characters as being far more mature and self-reliant than most of the males depicted. One could even argue that the young woman's transformation is triggered once she makes the prompt and correct decision to free herself from an unfulfilling relationship and sets out alone into the vast labyrinth of Tokyo.

Merde (dir. Leos Carax, 2008)

A truly strange character sporting a bright green suit and a weirdly-curled red beard has been seen emerging from the sewers of Tokyo and wreaking havoc upon innocent passers-by. He seems wholly detached from anything resembling civilized etiquette and demonstrates a strong (literal) hunger for currency and flowers.

Although his initial, disruptive wanderings into the sunlight are entertainment at best for local media, once he stumbles across a buried cache of World War 2 grenades and begins lobbing them en masse throughout the busy streets of Tokyo, his story and ultimate capture become a matter of national urgency. When his day in court finally arrives and the eyes of the nation are watching, the stranger's message is aimed squarely at the Japanese conscience and the nation's historical reckoning.


Overall, this was a rather fascinating film which nonetheless turned awkwardly monotonous in its third act. It is obvious that Carax wishes to use this opportunity to strongly criticize Japan's role in war-time brutalities, centering on the infamous "Rape of Nanking" (1937-1938). And such a critique is to be expected given Japan's historic (and present) unwillingness to reconcile itself globally or nationally regarding the carnage it enacted. Unfortunately, Carax renders his message ineffective and nearly snooze-worthy by letting an admittedly intriguing gimmick to take center stage for the entire last third of the film. Whatever poignancy and momentum he had built up to the moment of the court scene was brought to a screeching halt once the quirky, unintelligible language of the character became the medium for the film's moral message. The theater's audience squirmed and giggled, and by the end I think we were all quite relieved it was over.

The film's title comes from the French word "merde" which literally means "shit" or "crap", undoubtedly intended as a word play referring on the one hand to the character's sewer origins and more primary to the notion of his being the unintended natural by-product of Japan's chaotic moral Karma... shat out of nation's ass with a handful of grenades.

Shaking Tokyo (dir. Joon-ho Bong)

This tale follows a middle-aged Tokyoite suffering from agoraphobia, the fear of public places. He has contentedly holed himself up in his home for the past eleven years without ever setting foot outside. During that time everything he has needed has been delivered to him by folk who seem willing to put up with his phobic ways. Until, that is, a new delivery girl arrives who he cannot resist from looking at. While he fumbles for his change, a severe earthquake tremor hits, the severity of which causes the young woman to faint in the middle of his hallway. As he frantically panics over the situation, he observes several small tattoos resembling buttons on her arms and legs. There are buttons for love, hate, anxiety, amusement. There is also a button resembling a computer's "restart" which after long deliberation he touches, causing the girl to immediately wake up. She seems to be coolly familiar with her fainting spells and before leaving calmly remarks at how placid and perfect his obsessively stacked interior appears.

After more than a decade of isolation, this single encounter awakens in him a sense of relationship, not merely in terms of his sexual desire but of the dire realization that she too may prone to his Hell of social fear.


This is perhaps the most polished and internally consistent film in the TOKYO! collection. It accomplishes an almost seamless narrative transition between outer and inner worlds, a transition which comes to full realization only after the film has ended and viewers are given a chance to digest what they have seen. Unlike the other two (Western) films in this collection, "Shaking Tokyo" avoids uncanny special effects. Instead, it presents a plausible tale filled with what appear to be a focus on realism.

But the film ultimately requires some decisions by the audience as to what precisely is realism and what might be symbolic of the characters' psychological states. The film is clearly about the character's emancipation over psychological limitations and his pursuit of love, but whether the events ultimately causing him to leave his decade-long isolation are objective or subjective is left for the viewer to decide. I for one couldn't help but recall Kiyoshi Kurosawa's recent meaning-laden use of earthquakes in Sakebi.

final comment

I do not know whether there are plans of distributing TOKYO! through more mainstream venues, but given Gondry's role in the collection, it seems likely. In terms of TOKYO!'s place amid new Japanese film, there is nothing truly outstanding or genre-breaking here. The collection's primary value and merit is found in its belonging to that fourth category of film. And in that sense, it offers audiences something rather unique: Wholly Japanese films as written and directed through non-Japanese eyes and concepts.

cultural interest violence sex strangeness
Three "Japanese" films by three non-Japanese writer-directors The Merde film delves into grenade carnage and one prolonged "death" scene. Despite the mini-skirt, black garter belt and secret pushable tattoos, no nookie here. Some creative (re)visions are offered here, but nothing quite new.

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