Cities are organic. They may have their origins as towns—trading posts or shipping ports or strategic fortresses—but they mutate and evolve as people gravitate to them seeking shelter from the wilderness. In the process, the town takes on a symbiotic life of its own, imperceptibly absorbing its inhabitants while shaping itself to accommodate its hosts.
That’s how towns morph into cities.
And that’s how people become one with their city, whether they like it or not.
Tokyo! is a triptych of diverse short films, each of which examines an aspect of the isolation that often accompanies individuals living in the midst of millions. The common thread uniting the films comprising Tokyo! is alienation, with the city itself serving as a canvas upon which the surreal sketches are played. Two of the stories are directed by Frenchmen, and the third by a South Korean, further enhancing the otherworldly feel of Tokyo!
In “Interior Design,” writer-director Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) takes a Kafkaesque spin on finding one’s identity in the city. Loosely adapted from a Gabrielle Bell graphic novella, the story follows a young couple from the sticks trying to find their fortune in Tokyo. He’s an aspiring, if not very good, filmmaker, and she’s his unassuming but resourceful girlfriend. As he becomes more wrapped up in his importance as an artiste, she quietly tends to their day to day survival. As he becomes more self-important, she struggles to find her own voice, eventually morphing into a chair, literally. As terrifying as such a metamorphosis could be, she finds a new freedom as she explores her niche in society.
“Merde” is the contribution by director Leos Carax (The Lovers on the Bridge), and it’s part paean to Japanese kaiju films, part silent film comedy, and wholly disturbing. Merde (literally “shit” in French) is the titular character, gleefully portrayed by Denis Lavant, who rises from his subterranean home like some mad mime. At first, he’s a bothersome clown with a ridiculously curling beard and a chalky eye, snatching flowers and cigars from pedestrians, disrupting their routine before he disappears into the sewers. Deep within his lair, he happens upon an abandoned cache of hand grenades from the thirties, which he lobs at the citizenry when he next emerges above ground. Dubbed “the creature from the sewers” by the Japanese press, he’s put on trial for murder, and becomes a cause célèbre in the process.
“Shaking Tokyo” is an unsettlingly quiet film by South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-Ho (The Host.) The main character here is a hikikomori, or urban shut-in, who’s lived with minimal human contact for over ten years. He survives on monthly checks from his father, delivered through the mail slot in his door, and apparently lives mostly on pizza delivered anonymously to his small but meticulously kept apartment. It’s lined with empty toilet paper rolls and pizza boxes, all neatly stacked as if to keep time of his solitude. His pastoral existence is abruptly disrupted by two concurrent events the delivery of his pizza by a lovely delivery girl and an earthquake. She passes out from the excitement and he’s forced to make contact with the outside world to revive her. He’s shaken by her, as well, and finally ventures into the outside world to find her. What he discovers, however, is that Tokyo has all retreated indoors to become a city of hikikomori.
Tokyo! is an act of synergy. Taken as individual films, the movie does little at first glance to portray Tokyo, the city, as a vibrant force of 21st century culture. Truth to tell, none of the three films portray Tokyo as anything more than a supporting, though omniscient, character in the lives of its citizenry. There are references to the city in all the stories—the horrors of housing in the city in “Interior Design,” xenophobia and the island’s denial of history (not to mention Godzilla references) in “Merde”, the constant threat of earthquakes on the island in “Shaking Tokyo”—but they’re only brush strokes in the larger canvas of Tokyo! Ultimately, the movie works because it’s greater than its parts. While all three episodes are complete unto themselves, they’re a bit self-conscious when taken alone. But viewed together, they become integral parts of a surreal tapestry. With elements of absurdism, science fiction and romance, Tokyo! manages to paint a portrait not so much of the city, but of the souls who go largely unnoticed until their hearts collide with the mindset of the megalopolis.
Tokyo! the DVD is unrated. It’s presented in widescreen, and Dolby 5.1, with a Dolby 2.0 option also available. Fittingly, it’s in Japanese, with English or French subtitles. Video transfer is flawless, and the subtitles are presented in a way that doesn’t distract the viewers attention from the visuals. Special features are sparse, consisting of “making of” featurettes of the individual films, and interviews with the directors, as well as the obligatory theatrical trailer.