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Friday, Aug. 22, 2008
Trio of tributes to life in Tokyo
By KAORI SHOJI
Like any other big city, Tokyo does things to you. The three directors in the omnibus movie "Tokyo!" however, inflict their penetrating stare upon the city and don't flinch when the city gazes right back — they all give as good as they get. They know that what happens here is both unique and ubiquitous — "Only in Tokyo . . .", they seem to be saying, while in the next breath assuring us that the same stories could unfold almost anywhere in the world.
Thanks to them, Tokyo is liberated from the exotic (and annoying) Japanese-ness that had been the bane of other films made in or about the city ("Lost in Translation" is a fresh memory): For starters, there are no depictions of karaoke bars, women in kimono, sushi shop counters, shots of darkly clad salarymen marching over the crossing outside Tokyo Station looking completely depressed. To this trio, "Tokyo" is an individual city and private experience — their characters come off like genuine people instead of caricatures or icons.
Oddly enough, the city as shown in the film actually makes you want to live here, largely because the portrayals seem to have some real and personal importance to the directors. The sweetly nostalgic sensation recalls Woody Allen's "Manhattan" — a film difficult to sit through without fighting the urge to pack a suitcase and leave immediately for the Big Apple.
Michel Gondry ("Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," "The Science of Sleep") heads off the three-tiered tale with a sublime short story titled "Interior Design." Based on cartoon artist Gabrielle Bell's series "Cecil and Jordan in New York," it captures the here-and-nowness of a young couple (Ayako Fujitani and Ryo Kase) moving to the city and apartment hunting with less than ¥400,000 in savings.
The premise is familiar enough (Bell's comic is based in Brooklyn but the whole thing is transported to Tokyo surprisingly well) but the quirky undertone, the artsy-craftsy look of the production design and the high volume of whimsy is pure Gondry. What could turn out to be a nervous and gloomy tale in the hands of another director blossoms into a fantasy fable with no moral or real despair.
Initially, the city's not very kind to the couple (their car gets towed, a dead cat lies outside the window of a prospective apartment), but ultimately it rewards them. The boy, who's a filmmaker, lands a day job, gets to show his movie and earns some approval from the outside world. The girl, on the other hand, who is made to feel useless within 48 hours of arrival, eventually gets some satisfaction (albeit an ironic one) — by morphing into a piece of furniture. Her declaration of happiness becomes condensed into the line "I've never felt so useful!" as she finally finds a little space where it's possible to exist, unhampered by the dull brutalities of getting by.
The second story, "Merde" by Leos Carax ("Les Amants de Pont Neuf"), is almost unwatchable in its nonsensical grotesqueness; Tim Burton would maybe produce something like this after gorging on amphetamines and suffering from delirium. Carax, once known as the enfant terrible of French cinema, casts his favorite actor, Denis Lavant, to play "Monsieur Merde," a wiry little monster that emerges from the Tokyo sewers by day to terrorize the citizens, then disappears down a manhole at night. Merde pulls pranks and growls with impressive, Godzilla-like ferociousness at the office ladies walking peacefully in Ginza, but there's no real explanation why he's there at all. It's a brilliant and hopelessly chaotic farce — the complete lack of communication between Merde and the Tokyoites eventually leads to a trial that condemns Merde as the evilest of criminals. Carax is definitely not out to engage the audience or entertain them in any way; his interest seems only to be in Merde, and what could happen if a gross-out creature clad in a tight green suit was suddenly let loose on the wealthiest and most fashionable streets in Tokyo.
In the last segment, "Shaking Tokyo," Bong Joon-ho ("Memories of Murder") curbs his fast-paced, edgy style to create a still-life depiction of a man (Teruyuki Kagawa) who hasn't left his house in 11 years. Connected to the outside world (i.e., cleaners and delivery stores) via an antiquated phone and subsisting on the monthly envelopes of cash sent by his unseen father, the man is finally compelled to speak when the pizza-delivery girl (Yu Aoi) faints on his doorstep after a particularly tremulous earthquake. Naoto Takenaka puts in a memorable, two-minute appearance as her boss; sweaty and irritable, he's the only one who seems alive and sane in a story where everyone else refuses to budge. That is, unless they're threatened by a grand-scale earthquake. But not even the shaking could jar the wondrously hushed ambience of this elegant allegory.