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Review: ‘Tokyo!’ Is A Film Worth Visiting

Paris, je t’aime and the upcoming New York, I Love You are two examples of anthology films, but nestled in between them is the new film, Tokyo! Two French directors and one Korean take turns telling stories that attempt to explain if the city defines it’s people or if the people define the city.
By  · Published on March 10th, 2009

Anthology films are a tough sell for various reasons.  The audience has less time to invest themselves in the characters, the filmmakers have less time to tell their stories, and the film as a whole depends on each segment working in unison.  The best anthology films invariably end up as genre pics, like Creepshow and The House That Dripped Blood, but recently the format seems to have found a home with movies following a specific geographic theme.  Paris, je t’aime and the upcoming New York, I Love You are two examples, but nestled in between them is the new film, Tokyo! Two French directors and one Korean take turns telling stories that attempt to explain if the city defines it’s people or if the people define the city.

Michel Gondry opens the film with Interior Design, a story about a young couple moving to Tokyo for the first time.  Akira (Ryo Kase) and Hiroku (Ayako Fujitani) arrive in the city on a rainy night and settle in with their friend Akemi (Ayumi Ito).  The plan is to crash with her until they succeed in finding jobs and an apartment, but as the days pass the trio’s restlessness grows.  Hiroku’s lack of ambition adds to the tension and soon the couple is forced to face realizations about themselves and each other.  Twenty-seven minutes in Gondry’s visual inventiveness comes to life with spectacular effect, both visually and emotionally, in a series of scenes that’ll simultaneously impress you and make you smile.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is one of my favorite films, but Gondry’s subsequent work (Science of Sleep, Be Kind Rewind) has left me bored and disinterested in everything but the visuals.  For all of their creativity, they lacked heart, purpose, and characters worth caring about… which is why Interior Design is such a pleasant surprise.  Fujitani manages to imbue Hiroku with an attractive sweetness that turns to sorrow as awareness and pain build within her.  Her transformation is both thematically and visually stunning.  The score is also brilliant, moving from faux-ominous during the opening to a playful melody that accompanies Hiroku through her days.  Gondry’s tale ends with whimsy and hope, and leaves you on a high.

Which is immediately deflated by the film’s middle segment, Leos Carax’s Merde.  It’s an unfortunate disappointment because it ruins the mood set by it’s predecessor, but also because it starts off with such great promise.  A barefoot, half blind, little man (Denis Lavant) with a sideways beard and a green suit crawls from a sewer grate beneath Tokyo and begins a speed walk down the street.  He steals money and flowers to eat, knocks people to the ground, tosses a lit cigarette into an occupied baby carriage, and licks a terrified woman’s armpit before disappearing back into the sewers as quickly as he appeared.  The populace of Tokyo reacts with fear at the monster in their midst (indeed, several not so subtle audio references serve to draw comparisons to Godzilla), but when the creature starts blowing up citizens with found grenades the government captures him and puts him on trial.

Carax’s previous films have eluded me so far, and Merde is far from a glowing recommendation to search them out on Netflix.  After the vibrant, kinetic, and hilarious opening, the explosive and bloody assault is a jarring shift.  The creature, named Merde, speaks in a combination of sounds, spits, and slaps to his own face that are interesting for half a second before becoming highly annoying.  It only gets worse when a French lawyer, who inexplicably looks and sounds like Merde, arrives as his defense.  The trial drags on (and drags the film down), but not before Merde slams the Japanese people as the “most disgusting,” and that “they live way too long, and their eyes are shaped like a woman’s sex.” That sentiment combined with a sign Merde finds beside the weapon stash in the sewers (To Our Heroes Of Nanking 1937) is no small offense towards the Japanese people, although Merde claims to hate all of humanity.  The story ends uneventfully aside from an onscreen threat that Merde will next be seen in a NYC based sequel.  I’m open to the possibility that I’m somehow missing the point in all this, that somehow I just don’t get it, so feel free to give me shit in the comments below in defense of Merde.  As long as the argument consists of more than simply anarchy for the sake of anarchy, absurdity for the sake of absurdity…

Bong Joon-ho closes the movie with Shaking Tokyo, which follows an agorophobe (Teruyuki Kagawa) who falls in love with the pizza delivery girl (Yu Aoi) during an earthquake, and is forced to venture outside when she herself becomes a shut-in.  The story really is that simple, and it would probably be too lightweight if it weren’t for Bong’s beautiful imagery and ingenious set design.  Pizza boxes and toilet paper tubes form walls in the man’s apartment allowing rays of light to filter softly throughout.  The delivery girl falls to the ground barely revealing tattoos beneath her sleeves, and the man exhales lightly up her arm exposing tattooed “buttons” labeled “sadness, hysteria, headache.”  He finds another on the back of her sleek and sexy thigh labeled “coma,” and awakens her with a gentle press.  His journey out into the world to find her after ten years of self-imposed isolation is filled with harsh sunlight and revelations about himself and the city.  They’re an odd couple in an odd little film, and although the end of the segment leaves the viewer with an ironic and unanswered question, the short love story is still a miniature slice of joy.  Bong previously directed The Host and Memories of Murder, which remains one of the best police procedurals ever, easily on par with David Fincher’s Zodiac.

Tokyo! is two-thirds of a good film.  Taken individually, the parts are filled with small and unexpected pleasures, and even if Merde remains solely a curiosity, the other two make the film worthwhile.  As an anthology film it’s slightly less successful in putting across a collective theme.  Strands of loneliness and uncertainty are on display in some of the characters, but the bond is a tenuous one.  The trailer highlights transformation, anarchy, and rebirth, and while that does match the stories within, they don’t tell a cohesive and singular tale.  It’s a slight complaint though.  Tokyo! may not be greater than the sum of its parts, but those parts present an interesting and intriguing look into a city usually portrayed as violent, perverted, and dense, and it should find a place on every film-lovers itinerary.

Tokyo! is currently in limited theatrical release.  Check out the trailer below.

The Upside: Gondry’s Interior Design is funny, sad, and clever; Bong’s Shaking Tokyo is filled with small wonders, both visual and emotional, and ends the film with a precarious but wide-eyed optimism

The Downside: Carax’s Merde is a downer, both thematically and as pure entertainment; the film as a whole is lessened by it, and it interrupts the mood found in the bookending segments

Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.