J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Three Directors, One City: Tokyo!

There must be something about the city of Tokyo. Some of the coolest people I know are Japanese musicians living in New York. Yet, Tokyo is often represented in pop culture as a lonely city. Indeed, it is portrayed by three up-and-coming international directors as a city of profound alienation in the fantastical new anthology film, Tokyo! (trailer here), which opens Friday in New York.

Like New York (except more so), real estate is an expensive nightmare in Tokyo. In “Interior Design,” directed by Michel Gondrey, of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind fame, the unemployed Hiroko and her filmmaker boyfriend Akira consider themselves fortunate to have a place to crash when they move to the city. However, sharing a confined space with Hiroko’s old school chum and her boyfriend quickly frays Hiroko’s relationship with Akira and her friendship with her host. While Akira takes satisfaction from his bizarre schlock, Hiroko lacks respectable ambition. Suddenly, her social alienation begins to manifest itself physically, in the tradition of Franz Kafka, which is frankly disturbing to watch on-screen. It is an unsettling start to the film, thanks to the vulnerability of Ayako Fujitani’s performance and the ambivalence of its conclusion.

In a sense, Leos Carax’s “Merde” is familiar territory for Japanese cinema: the monster movie, but with a difference. This is Godzilla re-written by Dostoevsky—a feral Notes from Underground. Merde is a disheveled madman living deep in the city’s sewers. A rabid misanthrope, when he terrorizes Tokyo’s streets, he targets the most vulnerable and least offensive: women, children, the elderly, and the handicapped. When finally captured, the French advocate Maître Voland mysteriously appears to defend him, bearing a strong resemblance to the accused wild man and supposedly speaking his savage tongue. Like a Ramsey Clark or Jacques Vergès, he defends a monster by turning his trial into a circus. Clever and compelling, Merde bears comparison to The Dark Knight’s Joker, both of whom just want to see the world burn.

If anyone personifies alienation, it is the so-called Hikikomori, young acutely withdrawn shut-ins thought to be a particularly Japanese phenomenon by some social scientists. "Shaking Tokyo," directed by Bong Joon-Ho (best known for the Korean horror film The Host), takes the audience into the closed world of a Hikikomori, who has almost no human contact whatsoever. He must have food delivered, but he steadfastly avoids eye contact when it arrives. However, when the pizza delivery girl (played by Yu Aoi) mysteriously collapses during an earthquake, he cannot help but take notice of her. Bong’s oblique camera angles and claustrophobic environment nicely convey the neurotic perspective of his protagonist. The extent of the Hikikomori’s anti-social compulsions and their seductiveness to those potentially sharing the inclination is actually quite frightening, but Bong wraps it all up on a slightly hopeful note, without sacrificing the integrity of his story.

Whether it is because they suffer from deep-seated emotional trauma or are running for their lives from wild-eyed Frenchmen, human connections are maddeningly difficult to forge in Tokyo! Often visually striking, there is also a unifying undercurrent of sadness to the picture that makes it one of the more consistent anthology films, both in terms of style and substance. It opens Friday in New York at the Sunshine Theater.

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