Tokyo! Dir. Dirs: Michel Gondry, Leos Carax, Bong Joon-ho

[Liberation Entertainment; 2009]

Six months after seeing Tokyo! for the first time and two months after a second viewing, the three short films that make up the feature still haunt me like lingering Christmas ghosts -- odd, disconnected step-siblings that appear under the same roof. There's the romantic fancy of Michel Gondry's "Interior Design," the campy send-up that is Leos Carax's "Merde," and Bong Joon-ho's quiet meditation on a society of solitude, "Shaking Tokyo." It's easy to imagine the last shushing the garrulous second and precocious first in a quiet screening room.

The playfulness and innocence of Archie Comics permeate "Interior Design," a story about a young couple moving to the big city that ultimately descends into classic, Gondrian fantasy-play. The prevailing metaphor -- that is, human ghosts that slip between the cracks of Tokyo's buildings, which refuse even to touch each other -- comments on a city unable to love. Barriers like bureaucracy and careerism stand in the way, but the final indictment is something less tangible and more poetic or sentimental.

"Merde" takes a complete turn with its satiric monster-movie references, politico-cultural analyses, and bizarre slapstick comedy: A feral leprechaun emerges from Tokyo's sewers, causes havoc, kills, and is eventually put on trial. It's clear here that "Merde" is not an individual, but an elemental force of nature or society -- and a mildly entertaining one at that.

The third segment, "Shaking Tokyo," directed by South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho, takes as its subject a hikikomori (a uniquely Japanese kid of shut-in) who emerges from self-imposed house arrest to find his city overrun by a similar desire for solitude. The structure and order of his life are exquisitely rendered by methodically stacked take-out boxes and their hypnotic, repeating logos, while pristine shots of delicately breaking light and dust rarefy his shrine of the self. "Shaking Tokyo" is an elegy for a quiet people.

The puzzling question is, how do these disparate shorts connect? The pre-credit introduction gives one clue: The screen meanders for a while on a cartoon representation of Tokyo at night, all purple skyscrapers lit from below, roused by beeping traffic and street noise. The shot is calming in its warm colors and methodical pace, and even the chaotic disorder of the city sounds takes on a symphonic meter. Then, a plane suddenly streaks across the sky: in its wake, TOKYO!. The foreigners have arrived, with cameras and scripts in hand!

Unfortunately, while the directors lavishly apply their own styles, the generic, touristy approach they take -- a non-approach, really -- neglects to extend beyond simplistic stereotypes of the host city and its people. Six months later, I'm still not sure if these broad strokes say anything about Tokyo itself. Perhaps that's the punch line -- what do you get when you put three film directors in one of the most varied, nuanced cities in the world? Three self-portraits.

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