Far from a travel guide, “Tokyo!” is a trio of short films set in the Japanese city, created by three directors known for being on the edge of their genres. Michel Gondry (”The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”), Leos Carax (”The Lovers on the Bridge”) and Bong Joon-Ho (”The Host”) bring their individual sensitivities to geographic space and the human soul.
The first segment is Gondry’s “Interior Design,” which follows a young couple, Hiroko and Akira (Ayako Fujitani and Ryo Kase) in their move to Tokyo so the young man can advance his film career. In the process, the girl loses her sense of self. A surprising metamorphosis shows the descent of her self-esteem and redefinition of the supportive person she is.
The second segment is “Merde” by Carax, which introduces us to a sewer-dweller (Denis Levant) who is at once a Rasputin-like and Chaplanesque grotesque who emerges from the ground to wreak havoc on Tokyo citizens. He becomes represented by a French attorney whose facial traits are the mirror-image of his own, indicating a relationship by alienation.
Finally, the Bong segment titled “Shaking Tokyo” invites us into the ruminations of a shut-in man (a “hikikimori” in Japanese), portrayed by Teruyuki Kagawa, in his obsessional traits at home and his connection with a pizza delivery girl (Yu Aoi), who is slipping into becoming a hikikimori, whom he tries to save by reaching out to her, and in the process redeeming himself. Two earthquakes mark and define their points of connection.
The three films (none of which is directed by a Japanese director) share a sensibility for a specifically Japanese sense of alienation and isolation, investigated in the 2004 film “Tony Takitani” by director Jun Ichikawa (from the novel by Haruki Murakami). In “Interior Design,” the girl has to literally re-define herself so she makes sense in her new urban home. In “Merde,” the sewer-dweller defiantly kills and maims citizens in total detachment and isolation from society, like a human Godzilla who is always separate. He sneers, “I don’t like innocent people.”
In “Shaking Tokyo,” a man who holds his isolation from society up as almost an artform, shatters through his self-enforced chrysallis of a home in order to connect with another, with so much internal intensity as to “cause” earthquakes. It is this upbeat connection in “Shaking Tokyo” which made it necessary to place it last in the sequence. More than the other shorts, it leaves the audience feeling hopeful.
The conventions the directors use are at once viscerally compelling and touching. Whether wooden legs or flaming hair or shaking ground, “Tokyo!” speaks to how we are formed, or form ourselves, or just disappear, in the urban setting. Hiding behind some of the absurdities of the films (“Interior Design” alludes to ghosts between the buildings) are dramatic statements of longing, aloneness and human need. In “Merde,” a Japanese judge says “we don’t like racist foreigners in Japan,” which makes one wonder how contributory the Japanese are to this void in its own as well.
Through it all, the film is kept bouyant and light via its quirkiness and odd sensibilities. After all, it’s difficult to fully identify with characters this strange. There is a cartoonishness about their personalities which matches the cartoon image of the Tokyo skyline in the title sequence at the beginning and end of the film.
It is currently screening at the Nuart Theatre on Santa Monica Boulevard through March 27.