Tokyo! (France/Japan, 2008) [Tokyo Stories]

Ayako Fujitani and Ryo Kase in Michel Gondry’s Interior Design

Taken as a whole, there does not seem to be any connecting points between the three films featured in the anthology Tokyo!, which was produced by Comme des Cinemas in 2008. Tapped the then-emerging world cinema auteurs Michel Gondry, Leos Carax, and Bong Joon-ho, this French production presented their visions and challenged the image of Tokyo from unique view points. It emerged as a highly imaginative and enriching portrait of one of the world’s most populous cities.

The anthology’s first film, Interior Design, finds Michel Gondry focusing on a young couple who are crashing at a former high school classmates’ apartment while they adjust to their new life in the city. Hiroko (Ayako Fujitani) supports her filmmaker boyfriend, Akira (Ryo Kase), as he’s having his first film is receiving a limited engagement at a porn movie theater. She tries to help out by looking for part-time work and finding a place of their own. Along the way, Hiroko is plagued with a feeling of uselessness as she observes people around her doing things and being good at them.

Her narrative is conveyed through Gondry’s surrealist approach, in a similar manner to his previous work The Science of Sleep (2006). After the climactic moment in the narrative when Hiroko is confronted by the fact that she’s the only one in her circle who is not actively producing anything, her worries are externalized through a seemingly monstrous transformation when she wakes up one day with a literal hole in her chest. This kind of trope is present, too, in The Science of Sleep where the protagonist’s feelings are externalized. It is in such a manner that the title tries to make sense of its title: Hiroko becomes the design of her interior when she transforms into something useful.

Denis Lavant as Monsieur Merde in Leos Carax’ Merde

The second film features an interesting character, Monsieur Merde (Denis Lavant), a creature from the sewers who has been terrorizing the citizens of Tokyo for several weeks. When his troublemaking escalates to the point of actual life casualties, he is subjected to the punishment of the law. To finally put Mr. Merde on trial, a French Lawyer Maitre Voland (Jean Francois Balmer) volunteers to translate Merde for the benefit of a fair hearing. What is exposed during the trial is Merde’s relentless distrust of humanity as the rationale for his actions.

While directed by French filmmaker Leos Carax, Merde gets closer to Japan than the first film on its treatment of its subject. Mr. Merde is introduced with a rendition of the theme from the Godzilla (1954). Like the king of monsters, Merde knows no authority as he eats only the flower, a symbol for the Imperial Family, and paper bills. He leaves everyone devastated.

In this manner, both film and character are introduced as having the same degree of terror and destruction as Godzilla, giving the film a texture similar to that of the kaiju films. This similarity extends to the film’s treatment of Merde as a kind of monstrosity present within public opinion whose sightings are being followed by media. Where the film departs from kaiju lore is its treatment of the monster, which is not fought with military might or other monsters, but through legal means. This departure is observable from the shift of technique in the court proceeding sequences. While we get to know Merde, we are also exposed to what he knows and what he can do.

Teruyuki Kagawa in Bong Joon-ho’s Shaking Tokyo

The last film makes its focus more intimate. Shaking Tokyo features a social recluse or hikikomori (Teruyuki Kagawa) whose routine of 10-years is interrupted by his encounter with a pizza delivery girl (Yu Aoi) on a Saturday afternoon when they experience an earthquake. Anxious of the world beyond his home, the hikikomori nonetheless attempts to get outside to look for the girl.

Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho does what he’s always done best with this satire of social phenomena. While his approach often seems dark, his works are undeniably masterful in their utilization of comedy. Shaking Tokyo is not an exemption: the phenomenon of hikikomori is exaggerated in the production design as a jumping point for the film’s critique of consumerism. The element of the earthquake is, perhaps, being presented as an equalizer or a reset, as it panics all the recluse in the city, forcing them to come out of their homes.

While thematically separated, the films in Tokyo! show great concern for the titular city. Stereotypes are used not as a point of dominating representation, but as a presentation of proper nuances. Tokyo! manages to process what the outside world knows or think it knows about Tokyo and prompts insight from the encounters with the actual place. Ideas of Tokyo as a city vary. It can be nihilistic, like in Interior Design wherein the city is depicted as a cramped space with few habitable spots. Or in Merde wherein, it is depicted as powerless against the monstrosity of a foreign being. Or optimistic, like in Shaking Tokyo, where the hope is placed in social encounters as a solution to the isolation and anxiety promoted and propagated by consumerist individualism. However since the films are set in the same city, these variations do not suggest they are divided but, rather, distinct parts of the richness of the megalopolis.

Tokyo! was shown at Japan Society on December 7 2019 as part of ‘Tokyo Stories: Japan in the Global Imagination’.

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