Japan gets filtered through outsiders’ perspectives in Tokyo!, a trio of films from three non-Japanese directors — Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), Leos Carax (The Lovers on the Bridge), and Bong Joon-ho (The Host). Each film clocks in at around 40 minutes, and each seems to explore the isolation that can occur even in the midst of a massive city.
Each film has its own distinct kind of pleasures, and each almost deserves to be seen simply on its own. In truth, they all stand quite capably on their own merits, and it’s a great deal to get three solid films at the same time — getting one these days is unusual enough.
The first film is Gondry’s Interior Design, and it’s definitely the standout. Adapted from a comic book by Gabrielle Bell, the story deftly balances itself between surrealism and realism, with Gondry showing restraint where he ought to, and letting his hyper-creative mind guide the way elsewhere.
A young couple, Hiroko (Ayako Fujitani) and Akira (Ryo Kase), move to Tokyo with hopes of making it in the big city. They stay with her friend while they look for an apartment, but they have trouble finding a place. Akira, who’s a filmmaker, secures a job quickly, but Hiroko, whose ambitions are less focused, can’t seem to find anything.
This sensitive tale of a woman unable to find her place in the world takes a turn for the strange in its ending minutes, and what an ending it is. Interior Design is unexpectedly beautiful and touching. It’s beautifully shot, solidly acted, and so perfectly paced, it had me convinced 37 minutes was the perfect length for a film.
Up second is Carax’s Merde, a take on Godzilla films that’s the least focused of the three, but still succeeds in a lot of ways. Denis Levant stars as a bizarre creature from the sewers with long fingernails, a blind eye, and a crazy beard who terrorizes the inhabitants of the city for reasons unknown. When he launches a major attack at a train station, he’s put on trial for murder. Enter crack lawyer Maître Voland (Jean-François Balmer), an expert defense attorney who bears a striking resemblance to the creature, and one of the few who can speak his language.
Merde starts out strong, with some hilarious and creepy sequences of the creature doing what he does best, but it loses some steam during the trial sequences. By the end, things have picked back up with an appropriately mysterious ending, but the symbolism attached throughout isn't entirely clear.
The final film, Bong’s Shaking Tokyo is much more akin to Gondry’s than Carax’s. It explores the life of a hikikomori — a person who lives in voluntary extreme isolation. This man (Teruyuki Kagawa) hasn’t left his house in over a decade, and it’s full of immaculately ordered signs of indicating that, things like empty toilet paper rolls and empty pizza boxes stacked to the ceiling.
His first eye contact with another person in years comes courtesy of a pizza delivery girl (Yû Aoi), and things start to get shaken up in his life. Richly symbolic, Shaking Tokyo works so well for a lot of the same reasons as Interior Design — the pacing is similarly excellent and the atmosphere of loneliness is tangible.
There’s a lot to like about each one of these films, and while Gondry's will probably attract the most attention, it’s well worth it to experience the other two.
The Blu-ray Disc
Tokyo! is presented in 1080p high definition with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The films all look great, especially considering the heavy shadows present in each one. Definition remains true and sharp even in the frequent dark scenes. The color palette is fairly muted in the first two, and a little more vibrant in the last, and both colors and blacks look rich.
The audio is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1, and most of the time it’s a fairly straightforward front channel affair, although there are occasions for rumble in the last two films. The dialogue is in both Japanese and French with optional English subtitles.
Each film is given an in-depth look with a making-of featurette almost as long as the films themselves. In addition to the 30-minute making-of pieces, additional director interviews are collected on a separate featurette. Altogether, the extras represent a thorough look at the process behind the films. A photo gallery and trailer are also included.
The Bottom Line
Tokyo! brings more to the table than a typical film anthology — each film is given time to develop, resulting in substantial works that are though-provoking and delightful. It’s highly recommended.