With the three-director—Michel Gondry, Leos Carax, Bong Joon-ho—multistory film Tokyo!, the first really exciting piece of filmmaking of 2009 comes to town. Simply put, this is one terrific movie, even if it does consist of three stories that are related only by the city in which they take place. My original hesitation to expect much out of the film—owing to a lack of familiarity with the work of Leos Carax, and having been less than blown away by Bong Joon-ho’s The Host (2006)—vanished as the film unspooled.
I had expected to like Gondry’s segment, “Interior Design,” and I did, but since it opened the film, I was prepared for diminishing returns that never materialized. The moment Leos Carax opted to accompany the first appearance of his main character, Mr. Merde (Denis Lavant), rampaging through the streets of Tokyo in merde with Akira Ifukube’s theme from Godzilla (1954), he had me and he never lost me. I found it harder to respond to Bong’s “Shaking Tokyo” at first, but it won me over long before the end with its gentle humanity and playful sense of humor. It was only on a second viewing of The Host that I realized that the best thing about Bong’s film had been its humanity, not its giant-monster story.
Tokyo! is a film that will benefit from the viewer knowing little more than the bare substance of its stories on a first viewing, making it a hard movie to write about. Multiple viewings will enhance the experience, but there’s such a joy to the surprising nature of each tale that revealing too much would be doing the movie—or movies—a disservice.
Gondry’s “Interior Design” is probably the best of the three. It’s a deceptively simple story involving a young couple (Ayako Fujitani and Ryo Kase) who move to Tokyo and take up strained residency with a friend (Ayumi Ito) in the friend’s tiny apartment. He’s there to promote his film (the sort of cockeyed film that only a Gondry character could imagine), while she’s there for no very good reason other than the fact that he is. The charm of the piece lies not just in Gondry’s typical quirkiness, but also in its ability to seamlessly blend fantasy and reality—and the irony of who finds reality in whose flight of fantasy. Let’s just say that it isn’t what you expect, and it has an ending that manages to be both painfully sad and satisfying at the same time.
Carax’s “Merde” is meaner and tougher, which befits a film that sets out to mock and damn xenophobia on every level. That doesn’t make it an unpleasant movie, however. In fact—as the use of the Godzilla music should indicate—it’s a rather playful work. Just be prepared for the fact that the playfulness has a very full set of teeth. The story concerns a “monster,” Mr. Merde (yes, that’s his name), who emerges from the city’s sewers and causes very minor disturbances, which are viewed out of all proportion by the populace, mostly due to Merde’s peculiar appearance and movement. As an examination of prejudice, it could scarcely be better. As filmmaking, it is constantly surprising.
Bong’s “Shaking Tokyo” is essentially a love story—a love story with two very unlikely characters, an agoraphobic man (Teruyuki Kagawa) and a pizza-delivery girl (Yu Aoi). It concerns what happens one day when the girl delivering the pizza faints in the man’s house and he falls in love with her when he learns that they share similar disorders. It’s a simple story, but filled with rich nuggets of detail and touches of cleverness that mean much.
Viewers who are really interested in filmmaking—and anyone in search of something a little out of the ordinary (and there’s so much ordinariness about these days)—should lose no time in going to see this truly remarkable film by three pretty darn remarkable filmmakers. Not rated, but contains adult themes and nudity.