"Tokyo!" appropriates the seldom seen (these days) portmanteau format to give three foreign directors - two French and one Korean - the chance to deliver their own take on one particular aspect of the apparent enigma that is the modern-day Japanese city of the film's title. The triptych of half-hour long, fable-like stories, despite showcasing three very diverse styles of storytelling by three unpredictable and fairly high-profile genre directors, actually flow together really nicely - each one essaying a sort of whimsical, almost lackadaisical surrealist mood vaguely similar to the idiosyncratic style of Philip Kaufman's work, making this "rhapsody" on a theme an unexpectedly enthralling little curio, and well worth a punt for those in search of something a little different from the normal style of travelogue picture.
Michel Gondry is probably best known for "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind". With "Interior Design", the first of the threesome, he delivers an oddball but gentle tale that comes to play like a reversed version of "Pinocchio" as scripted by Franz Kafka, concerning as it does a woman whose desire to be of use to those around her eventually causes her to physically turn into a chair! Steven Seagal's daughter Ayako Fujitani plays Hiroko, a shy but bohemian young girl who moves to Tokyo with her arty student film-making boyfriend, only to find that they're forced to live with one of Hiroko's friends in her cramped and cluttered, single-room apartment. Although the boyfriend is oblivious to the embarrassment of being forced to sponge off the less-than-happy friend, being obsessed with his hilariously pretentious art film project and a planned screening of his 'masterpiece' at a local porn cinema (where he directs smoke from a smoke machine at the hapless audience as the film plays on screen), he effortlessly manages to find work as a 'present wrapper' in a Tokyo department store, while Hiroko finds the effort of city living impossible to negotiate. Overhearing her friend complaining about her lack of effort in finding her own apartment, and of her laziness and joblessness, Hiroko's depression manifests itself in a vividly bizarre way one evening: while walking in the street she starts to turn into a chair! The film's ostensibly rather laid-back, almost guerilla drama style gives this sudden surrealist turn an extra charge as it vaults into the 'Uncanny'. Rather like the events of a classic anxiety dream, we see Hiroko struggling down a busy street at dusk as first one then the other of her legs turns into a piece of wood; she is finally fully transformed into a finely chiselled but basic wooded chair at a bus stand, but then finds herself stranded stark-naked (another dream 'standard') in the middle of the city when she returns to human form!
If "Interior Design" is a mannered comment on female subservience in Japanese culture from outside that culture, then Léos Carax's playfully anarchic film, "Merde", takes on politics, public paranoia and the media by way of a monster movie with a difference. Carax hasn't made very many films; but those he has, such as "Pola X" and "Les Amants du Pont-Neuf", have furnished him with a reputation as a cinematic maverick, leading to even a small-scale project such as "Merde" becoming the object of a great deal of speculation. It certainly doesn't disappoint in the weirdness stakes, adopting a cartoon-like style to satirise contemporary obsessions with terrorism. Regarding this theme, it could just have easily have been made in the U.S., but Carax wants to take a specific look at how the Japanese deal with such issues, although the end credits jokingly promise us a sequel: "Merde in New York"!
From out of a manhole in the middle of a Tokyo street emerges a shambling, leprechaun-like figure in green velvet with an occluded milk-white right-eye, a skewwhiff pointy beard, stringy, ginger hair and a filthy pallor. The odd little grunting fellow (Denis Lavant) makes his crooked way along a crowded street in broad daylight, knocking pedestrians over, stealing cigarettes from the mouths of passers-by and generally acting with no regard for politeness or etiquette, before disappearing back down another manhole. Carax films this little escapade in virtually a single shot accompanied by Akira Ifukube's Godzilla theme music! This event is all it takes for the media to turn the 'creature' into a phenomena. Japan cowers in fear at "The Creature of the Sewers". Vox Pop interviewees describe his monstrous appearance, mobile phone footage of his exploits is broadcast on hysterical TV news reports: the unnamed figure becomes a media sensation. The creature lives in underground caves, eats only Chrysanthemums (the symbol of the Imperial family) a bed of which he also sleeps on, naked. When he discovers a cache of old grenades apparently leftover from the Nanking massacre of 1937, the ginger-bearded anarchist's forays into the over-world become that much more lethal: he begins lobbing grenades randomly into the crowded streets which become littered with the bloodied corpses of his victims. The full force of the state is inevitably brought to bear and Merde (for that is what he calls himself) is tracked to his underground hideout and brought into custody.
Perhaps Merde is intended to be some sort of personified symbol of how a nation's past crimes can return to haunt it. Crapax creates a sort of "Fantomas"-like super-villain out of him. As Merde is put on trial, the nation splits into pro and anti Merde factions. The pros carry placards proclaiming: "the more you hate us, the more we love you!", the antis begin committing racist attacks on 'white foreigners with red heads' , so disgusted are they with the inscrutable figure of anarchy. A French lawyer called Voland (Jean-Francois Balmer) who claims to be able to speak Merde's strange language of glottal rasps and face slaps, is brought in to act as his defendant, gradually starting to look more and more like him as the trial progresses. The prosecution cite all sorts of diverse evidence from around the world: footage of Merde at an al-Qaeda training camp, his alleged involvement with the Aum Shinrikyo sect (the religious sect responsible for releasing poison Sarin gas on the Tokyo subway in 1995), his appearance in a Hungarian pedophile film! The final twist comes three years later when Merde's death sentence is all set to be carried out.
Crapax's film is irreverent and funny and strange but sometimes tests the viewer's patience with its long courtroom scenes and scenes of the lawyer's tortured, unsubtitled conversation's held in Merde's bizarre home-made 'language'. It's really a variation on Robert Louis Stevenson's "The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde", where the unconscious beast-like forces kept hidden beneath the surface of society are shown to eventually display themselves in the form of an 'enemy' that becomes equally a source of fascination as well as fear. While "Merde" is by turns stimulating and frustrating, Bong Joon-ho, the Korean director best-known for his amazing monster movie "The Host", delivers the quietest and most romantic of the trio of films, the beautifully shot "Shaking Tokyo".
The surreal, almost sci-fi tone of this short film creeps up on the viewer gradually, the 'weird' trappings are barely noticeable initially since the world of the protagonist is so alien to that of most people, anyway. It deals with the unusual Japanese social phenomena of the 'hikikomori' — reclusive young people who never leave their homes for years on end, usually relying on parents to support them financially. The protagonist of this particular story lives alone, surviving on money sent through the post by his father. Not only does he never go out, but he apparently never throws anything away. Cardboard toilet-roll tubes are stacked in perfect alignment, as are the columns of red pizza boxes in his living room; his condition has been almost elevated to the status of an art. He spends all day reading from the towers of books kept stacked in all the rooms of his dwelling, and is not adverse to falling asleep on the toilet! That is until an attractive young pizza delivery girl collapses in his doorway during an earthquake. The bewildered young man notices that she has 'buttons' tattooed along her arms and legs, each one labelled with a particular emotion. After 'reactivating' her she quietly leaves, but the man has now been shaken from his isolated stupor and determines to go outside, for the first time in ten years, in pursuit of her. However, he discovers that the world has changed radically since he last set foot outside his door: the whole city has become hikikomori!
Quietly haunting and ambiguous in its execution, "Shaking Tokyo" perhaps doesn't leap out so much as its more blatantly surreal partners, instead it develops an atmosphere of strangeness with images of deserted streets and ivy covered modern apartments. The overall impression it leaves is one of wistful regret. All three films have a separate 'Making Of' feature on the DVD which runs for at least as long as each of the films themselves. The best of them is the Michel Gondry one, which gives a real overview of the director's working methods. The other two consist mostly of raw, behind the scenes footage displaying a particular scene or scenes in the process of being shot. This low profile, below-the-radar movie is well worth looking out for, and receives a respectable DVD treatment here from Optimum Releasing.