Synopsis: Three of world cinema’s great visionaries: Michel Gondry (Be Kind Rewind, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind), Leos Carax (The Lovers On The Bridge), and Bong Joon-ho (The Host) each direct a segment of this surreal triptych set in the ultra-modern metropolis of Tokyo, Japan.
In the tradition of such films as New York Stories, Night On Earth, Paris Je T’aime and its forthcoming sequel New York Je T’aime, Tokyo! addresses the timeless question of whether we shape cities, or if cities shape us – in the process revealing the rich humanity at the heart of modern urban life.
‘Tokyo!’ is being marketed as a film in the same vein as ‘Paris, je t’aime’ and ‘New York, I Love You’. With all due respect to those who make this claim, I don’t believe this to be apt at all, as it only offers three stories – and none of them are interconnected. In that sense, the film is more like ‘New York Stories’: each segment takes place in the same city, they are filmed by different casts and crews and they are stand-alone stories unrelated to each other.
The main difference is that this one has a surreal side to it that is somewhat Lynchian. While the three pieces differ wildly in their levels of weirdness, each story has its own peculiar twists that make it slightly unusual at best. And when the segment takes a serious walk on the wild side, it can actually become incoherent and mildly off-putting.
The first of the films was directed by Michel Gondry, of ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ fame. It follows a couple who have come to Tokyo to find work and a home. They live at a friend’s place, temporarily, but tensions start tearing the three apart and their individual happiness becomes more and more uncertain – until a certain inexplicably odd happening changes everything.
Based on a US graphic novel, and adapted for this project, this film eases the viewer into what will become a more peculiar affair. Surprisingly, Gondry’s piece is probably the most grounded work of the bunch. That is both a plus and a serious liability, because his imagination is what typically makes his work so pleasing to watch. Here, we are mostly left with the interpersonal dynamics of the characters involved – for good or bad.
The next bit is strange indeed. In it, we are presented with a crazy (and crazy-looking!) character who climbs out of the sewers and proceeds to rampage on the sidewalks of Tokyo. The media call him a “monster” and he becomes a sensation. In this segment, we follow him on a short, but chaotic stroll, followed by his capture and his trial.
Seems simple enough, except that the character speaks in a fictitious language – and one that is grating to hear and to watch being performed (because it involves much jerky gesticulation!). To make matters worse, his attorney speaks in the same fashion and proceeds to interrogate his client for an interminable amount of time – all without subtitles. Thus, we are forced to watch two extremely unappealing characters squeak at each other without much sense of what is going on. It’s all very bewildering and unnecessary.
Thankfully, the triptych is bookended nicely by the final instalment. In it, we discover the life of a Japanese recluse (or “hikikomori”) who has not set foot outside his home for over a decade. We get to see and understand how he lives and manages to function in such severe seclusion; it was both impressive and humourous. Then his world is shaken up, and he feels compelled to leave the confines of his self-made prison.
It reminded me of the “frog rain” element in ‘Magnolia’, which I rather liked, and I found the character much more fleshed out than any of the ones we had seen thus far. While it’s hard to fully understand his motivations in such a short amount of time, the film manages to humanize the character and we find ourselves empathizing with him along the way.
Over all, it was an interesting, but not wholly moving, cinematic experience. In my opinion, some people might find it too much to bear, and I certainly wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who mostly likes Hollywood fare. But it should appeal in some capacity to fans of ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’, ‘Magnolia’ and David Lynch.