Tokyo! is a triptych, a three part ‘compendium film’ made as a Japanese-French co-production partnership and featuring two of the quirkiest French directors, Michel Gondry and Leos Carax. The reason for writing about it now is that I am researching the third director, the then rising star of South Korean cinema, Bong Joon-ho. All three directors were asked to make a film lasting roughly 36 minutes set in Tokyo. This follows similar projects set in Paris and New York. I don’t know how the commission was worded but the three films take quite different approaches. Two of them do focus on ‘living in Tokyo’.
Michel Gondry’s ‘Interior Design’ is up first. He adapted a graphic novel story, ‘Cecil and Jordan in New York’ by Gabrielle Bell, and presents it as a young couple driving into Tokyo and then sleeping on the floor of a university friend’s apartment. Space is at a premium in Tokyo so all the apartments are cramped and expensive and there is nowhere to park the car. The guy in the couple is an aspiring filmmaker with some novel ideas but the woman has not yet decided what she wants to do and the experience of coping with Tokyo (and how it changes their relationship) affects her much more than him. Gondry finds a fascinating and delightful way of visualising how she feels and I greatly enjoyed his film.
The middle film by Leos Carax is titled ‘Merde’ and features a demented character emerging from the sewers and racing down the streets in Tokyo’s high-end shopping area, knocking down shoppers and stealing odd items to chew on. Dressed in a vivid but filthy green suit the man is played by Carax’s ‘go to’ actor Denis Lavant with relish. He has a milky eye, a red beard, sooty hands and feet and gurns enthusiastically. His rampage is repeated a little later but this time he stages a terrorist act and is arrested. In what follows, Carax offers a satire on a range of social and political issues that are universal but here they are made specific to Japan. The final section utilises the judicial system in Japan as a narrative device to pick out specific Japanese issues about wartime atrocities and immigration policies and also offers a prescient commentary on how populist media campaigns are fuelled (and contested) by the ways in which incidents are reported. A caption at the end promises us a ‘Merde in New York’ follow-up.
Bong Joon-ho’s film completes the triptych with a more composed and beautifully designed film, ‘Shaking Tokyo’. The central character is a hikikomori – a recluse who lives alone in an apartment from which he never emerges, only opening the door to the delivery drivers/riders who bring his food and drink and other necessities. Even then he doesn’t look up to make eye contact. He hasn’t left the apartment for more than 10 years. He is still relatively young and receives money from his father each week. One day he opens the door for his Saturday pizza delivery. As usual, his gaze is lowered to focus on the pizza box onto which he will place the cash for the deliverer, but today his eye catches the leg of the person holding the box. There is an almost fetishistic suspender joining the person’s shorts and leggings. Our recluse hero looks up and sees this is an attractive young woman who delivers pizzas using a motor scooter. For a moment their eyes make contact and then a rumble announces an earthquake. The apartment full of supplies and carefully stored pizza boxes etc. starts to shake and the young woman faints. The recluse is forced to act. I won’t spoil what happens in the rest of the narrative, but after this classic ‘inciting incident’ the hikikomori can’t just carry on as he did before. He feels compelled to leave the apartment.
Bong’s film is beautifully shot by Fukumoto Jun. Kagawa Teruyuki, playing the role of the recluse, makes almost imperceptible movements in close-up to convey his thought processes (which are sometimes confirmed by his voice-over thoughts). Within the confines of the apartment and an exquisite mise en scène comprising neatly stacked boxes, bottles and toilet roles, Bong is still able to construct an engaging narrative. How do we relate this to Bong’s concerns in his features? Unusual for a Bong film there is no form of family or social group to enable a commentary on society – perhaps because this is Japan rather than South Korea? Instead the film demonstrates Bong’s mastery of design and choreography of action. And the hikikomori is a familiar marginal character who is forced out of his home to search for the young woman. Once out of the apartment and out on the street, perhaps Bong does critique Japanese society, albeit obliquely and in a way that might only be possible for a Korean. Whatever you make of the last few minutes of Bong’s film, he has done what all the best short films should do in my view – produce a narrative with ideas and try to make it as ‘filmic’ as possible. I don’t how his crew were able to create the final scenes but it works very well. I would recommend the the triptych for Bong’s film alone with Gondry’s as a bonus. I know Leos Carax has his fans and they may enjoy his contribution.