Film Review: Tokyo!

Two out of three ain’t bad for an evening’s (very) light entertainment, set in the world’s most modern, jangling metropolis, but beware Leos Carax’s “Merde.”

Tokyo, with its humongous, sardine-packed population and jittery bustle, is one wacked-out place and the three films, directed by a trio of cult favorites, which comprise Tokyo! certainly attest to that fact. Two shorts here really capture something of the city’s schizophrenic ethos in a way that the overrated, stereotype-mongering, rich-girl’s opus Lost in Translation, which barely left its luxurious hotel confines, never managed to do.

Michael Gondry’s “Interior Design” is the most appealing contribution, about a tyro filmmaker, Akira (Ryo Kase), and his insecure girlfriend, Hiroko (Ayako Fujitani), who come to stay with a friend (Ayumi Ito), and stay and stay, as they unsuccessfully hunt for an apartment of their own. There’s a sweetness to the film, mirrored in the placid good nature of their hostess, the epitome of immaculate, traditional Japanese politesse. Akira’s films, with titles like The Garden of Degradation, frankly suck in their amateurishness and lousy ideas like real smoke emitted in the theatre during a screening; when he runs his video for the girls, they fall asleep, and when it’s over, they wake up and dutifully applaud. Eventually, the identity-less Hiroko, who feels extraordinary pressure to “be someone,” undergoes a surreal transformation that is both witty and haunting.

Bong Joon-ho’s “Shaking Tokyo” deals with a hikikomori (Teruyuki Kagawa), one of the frighteningly large, ever-burgeoning population of agoraphobic Japanese citizens who have chosen to isolate themselves indoors with minimal human contact. When a comely pizza-delivery girl (Yu Aoi) intrudes on his space, he becomes obsessed by her to the point of finally venturing out of his cave to find her. The outside world is completely disconcerting to him, as he blinks to take in the unaccustomed light as well as the fact that he is far from alone in his psychosis. Slack-jawed Kagawa is perfectly cast and the director maintains a light yet steady touch which invests his slight tale with a piquant appeal, speaking to many of us who may have an inner yearning to just retire from an ever-crazier and more threatening modern reality.

And then there’s Leos Carax’s very trying “Merde,” which is a literal piece of cinematic excrement. It focuses on a thoroughly repulsive humanoid (Denis Lavant), who emerges from the sewer and terrorizes Tokyo more horribly than Godzilla ever dreamt of, leaving hysterically sobbing women and hapless, helpless men in his wake. Carax’s film technique is taxingly self-indulgent, as his wildly shaky camera endlessly follows this incomprehensibly ranting monster as he goes on his senseless prowls about the city. Eventually he is brought to trial, and defended by a lawyer (Jean-François Balmer) who is the only one who can understand what he is saying and is every bit as obnoxiously outrageous, behaving like Salvador Dali in his dotage. Carax is obviously trying to say something about the Japanese tendency to sensationalize any occurrence, as well as the culture’s overweening good manners and even past, hushed-over national atrocities like the Rape of Nanking, but the overall effect is less Dada than doo-doo.