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Movie Review: Tokyo! (2008)

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Written by Caballero Oscuro

Although the three short films comprising Tokyo! are completely self-contained and come from wildly dissimilar directors, they all share the same theme: alienation. Surprisingly, even though each film is set in Tokyo, none of them are vastly influenced by the setting. It’s rewarding to see how these non-Japanese directors approach the task of capturing the essence of Tokyo, but ultimately the core tales contained here are universal enough that they could be easily transplanted to any major metropolis.

The lead-off hitter here is likely the main draw for most U.S. viewers, as Michel Gondry has amassed an impressive string of oddball hits accentuated by his propensity for whimsical, homemade touches. His segment, “Interior Design,” is surprisingly conventional for most of its running length until it veers firmly into the surreal in its closing minutes. A young couple moves to Tokyo to further the filmmaking career of the boyfriend, but with no home of their own and no marketable skills, the girlfriend slips further into the background as she searches for her own purpose in life. Lead actress Ayako Fujitani (daughter of Steven Segal) contributes a fine performance that admirably portrays her character’s displacement and desire to belong.

The unmistakable opening strains of the classic Godzilla score give a clear hint to the direction of Leos Carax‘s segment, “Merde.” A disheveled and seemingly deranged white man emerges from a manhole and proceeds to plow a path of destruction through the shocked pedestrians in his way, nonchalantly stripping them of their belonging including cash, crutches, and flowers (especially the flowers). This monster doesn’t stomp on buildings like Godzilla/Gojira, but he evokes a similar sense of terror in Tokyo as his manic id crashes against the traditionally stoic and reserved ego of its citizens. When his subsequent outing results in tremendous civilian casualties, he’s hunted down, captured, and outed as a bizarre loner who speaks a language supposedly known by only two other people on earth. This extreme alienation clearly affects his ability to interact with others and leads to many public questions, but he remains something of a mystery as his origin and intentions aren’t disclosed. While it seems that the character was originally developed to serve as a stark contrast to the conformist culture he inhabits, he’s ultimately so fascinating on his own that it’s a delightful albeit unlikely surprise when a final title card flashes “Coming Soon: The Adventures of Mr. Merde in New York.”

Joon-ho Bong gained traction with the crime drama Memories of Murder but rocketed to international acclaim on the back of his blockbuster Korean monster movie, The Host. In his segment here, “Shaking Tokyo,” he studies a hikikomori, an extreme recluse who has completely cut himself off from society, never leaving his abode and never even meeting the glance of the myriad deliverymen who facilitate his continued existence. The hikikomori’s idealized life of takeout meals and literature is literally and figuratively shaken one day when a pizza-delivery girl faints on his doorstep during an earthquake. Initially appalled by the human contact but eventually intrigued by the promise she embodies, he forces himself out of his home in order to quench his curiosity. It’s a somewhat lightweight but enjoyable tale that succeeds thanks to Bong’s solid direction.

While anthology films typically come up short with at least one throwaway segment, the directors and stories selected for this film have such refreshing originality that the film never falters. Tokyo! is a delight from beginning to end, a winning example of a triptych done right.

Tokyo! is now playing in select markets including New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles/Orange County. For a complete list of cities where this film will open, go to the film's website.

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