When twenty directors come together to celebrate a city on film, like in Paris je T'aime, it is easy to gain a palpable sense of the place, as if each scene is a brief peek into Parisian life. Best of all -- good or bad, another scene is only moments away; there are a myriad of scenes, styles, and experiences. With three, however, the stakes are raised. Each piece is important and cannot fade into a sea of many.
Tokyo! is a triptych that merges the visions of three creative filmmakers – Michel Gondry, who was responsible for the desperate, mind-wiping romance of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; Leos Carax, who created the tempestuous Pola X; and Bong Joon-ho, the man who brought us the wickedly fun horror film, The Host. True to their art, each offers fresh and unique creations that twist recognizable themes, but they are not exactly clips that merge into a cohesive look at the Japanese city. Instead, they seem much more like three random films that just happen to take place in Tokyo.
With "Interior Design," Gondry explores notions of love and uselessness as he follows a young couple who move to Tokyo. Akira (Ryo Kase) is an indie filmmaker with a variety of talents and aspirations, and Hiroko (Ayako Fujitani) is a thoughtful but aimless young woman. As he easily finds a job and begins to settle into a new life, she struggles to find her footing. Hiroko feels the pressure of imposing on her friend's miniscule space, as well as her failure to find an apartment, or a job, or even to keep their car from being towed. She has interests, but no inspiration, until a strange transformation (fueled by Gondry's simple yet striking DIY special effects) offers her a new place in the world.
Gondry intermingles aspects of Tokyo with the path of his young and struggling character. Location and space are notions so prevalent in the piece that they become another character, visible at every turn – from the dark, barely there spaces between buildings that Akira dwells on, to the ridiculously cramped habitats of Tokyo living. But Gondry's whimsy look into Tokyo is short-lived.
With a powerful clap comes Carax's "Merde" (French for "Shit"). A twist on ideas of the "other," this short follows what appears to be a full-size, displaced, maniacal leprechaun-type creature called Merde (freakishly and wonderfully played by Denis Lavant), who wreaks havoc on Tokyo. He starts off eerily and fairly innocently, stumbling through the streets in long tracking shots, eating flowers and money whilst stealing a crutch or randomly licking a female pedestrian. Soon however, his strange walks turn to bloodshed and violence, which gets him arrested, linked with another of his kind (an erudite French lawyer of all people), and put on trial.
"Merde" doesn't only contrast Gondry's whimsy, the eerie fable to counteract the cheery one, but also contrasts in its treatment of Tokyo. The city barely plays third or fourth-string in this story, seeming much more like a way to discuss fear of the "other." One could link it to accounts of Japanese xenophobia, but that doesn't seem to be the card Carax is playing here. More specifically, Merde is a white terrorist-like figure sitting in contrast to the Japanese. He feels and inspires hate and hate crimes, and is wily and hard to catch. On its own, "Merde" is an interesting vehicle to discuss views on terrorism and fear. However, while it also taps into worlds of isolation, it feels quite out of place settled between two Tokyo-influenced romantic pieces. It simply overpowers the trio with its tone and treatment.
Finally, there's "Shaking Tokyo," Joon-ho's treatment of the agoraphobic hikikomoris in Japan. Unlike the previous examples, this short is quite simple: a hikikomori (Teruyuki Kagawa) is thrust out of his 10-year isolation in a world of towering pizza boxes, books, and toilet paper rolls by earth-shaking love and the desire to keep another from retreating inside herself. He break into the harsh, blinding light for her, and their connection seems to, quite literally, shake Tokyo. Once again, the city is used for a sweet and romantic purpose, although the city cannot get much play in a story about hikikomoris. Like Gondry's piece, Joon-ho's examines the desire for attachment and meaning, and helps set "Merde" up as the solid, angry middle.
Edited into shorter segments and intermingled with more filmmakers and stories, all three shorts could fit, and have meaning, in a city ode. However, stretched into a third of a feature, they zoom not as much into the city's mind and experience, but into each filmmaker's quirks – more of a collection of films designed to showcase the interests of three unique filmmakers than a triptych to celebrate Tokyo.
It's a shame because these are talented filmmakers who have created engaging shorts. They just aren't a trio of films that work particularly well together to relay a large and vibrant city. If two of the three weren't invested in such similar romantic themes, or if each was shortened and tightened to make room for a fourth or fifth at least, maybe things would be different. But as it stands, getting a sense of Japan is fleeting.
Tokyo! is fun and thought-provoking, but doesn't reveal a new side of Tokyo, nor a greater understanding of the city. Of course, it won't play out in the same manner as films like My Winnipeg, which relays historical stories while entertaining, but Tokyo! did have the opportunity to present something new about the city. Instead, Tokyo holds that same mystery – a land of strange fantasy ... another world we can't quite understand.