There aren’t many three-part, thematically connected, self-contained, trilogy films (I’m trying to avoid that abused word “triptych” here). The best one I can think of was New York Stories from back in 1989, featuring a set by Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, and Woody Allen. The few other films I’m aware of are Four Rooms (not the best), Asia Extreme 1 and 2 (saw 1, not 2), more recently Paris, je t’aime, and going way back, horror collections like Creepshow and Twilight Zone the Movie. But these tripartite films aren’t very popular, they’re something of the publishing equivalent of short story collections; only practitioners of the art ever read them, or watch them. And it’s too bad, because one can always pick out a real gem in every one.
Tokyo! runs through its share of what we’ve come to expect of most things Japanese, that it’s weird and subtly bizarre, but the directors here don’t assume this is inherent to being Japanese. Michel Gondry’s story fits in with what Gondry has always been interested in, and Leo Carax I’m sure does the same, as with Bong Joon-ho. But with any collection of stories, each one are of varying quality and character, and often of varying strength.
The film isn’t so concerned with Tokyo the city as it is with its people, the Tokyo-ers or -ites. The first by Michel Gondry, “Interior Design” is probably the strongest. One immediately knows this is about Tokyo, because how better to open than with a neophyte couple moving into the giant metropolis for the first time? They go through the familiar rites of searching for apartments (mortified by the over-priced rates and frightening living conditions), getting their car towed, to dealing with the awkardness of over staying one’s welcome at a friend’s. But then this story alone wouldn’t be enough, so what should happen but that the girlfriend suddenly turns into a chair? It was the most unexpected and whimsical thing, like Gondry simply decided midway through this would happen, the girl will turn into a chair. And you believe it. You accept it without pause.
Gondry also touches on the core idea of seeing the city in a new and unexpected light. Scenes of a naked woman sprinting lightly down the nighttime streets is brief but powerful, as her pale figure is set against an intensely urbanized Tokyo. She then squeezes between tightly stacked buildings and disappears into the dark. It’s the most striking moment of all three films, touching on the extremes of tender flesh and giant, urbanized concrete.
The other two films stand out less. Leo Carax’s “Merde” starts strong with an extended shot of the sewer dweller Merde rising from the depths to terrorize the local Ginza district shoppers on his long march down the palisade. But a lot of what’s funny in the beginning wears thin as the story gets bogged down by attempts at satire. Punctuated by a soundtrack and sound effects from the original Godzilla, Carax draws references to Japan’s dark history of imperialism lurking in the sewers underground, where Merde blithely trots along. The mystery of Merde’s identity turns into a kind of metaphor for terrorists or cult leaders or your run of the mill fanatics, potentially done to reveal the contemporary soullessness of the Japanese people, or maybe by extension modern man. Who knows. The metaphor is far too drawn out. What initially started as funny and interesting, becomes labored and loses all force. The same goes for Bong Joon-ho’s “Shaking Tokyo.” Much as I enjoyed Bong’s feature The Host, the latter’s same biting satire is completely lost in this story of a hikikomori (the modern equivalent of a hermit extreme) who falls in love with a pizza delivery girl. Bong’s reliance on earthquakes as a plot device is excusable if the use is spare and pointed, but in “Shaking Tokyo” he uses three earthquakes to move the story forward. There were some nice touches though, like the electric shock that wakes the girl from her faint, but small touches aren’t enough to carry even a short film like this one. The one interesting moment is when the hero steps out of his house and sees an entire population living ‘inside.’ The question remains, is this science-fiction or is it a social critique? The film didn’t go far enough with this and instead drew back to the old standard of a guy finding the girl he loves.
The idea is good, a collection of three films about a city as seen by non-natives. But these films are as much about the theme as it is about the directors and their individual muscle power. With Tokyo!, Gondry flexes easily and shows striations, Carax goes for the big guns and falls a little short, and Bong, well he’s the lone chessman of the bunch, which begs the question why the producers didn’t stick with the French theme and have a third Frenchman at the helm (Jean-Pierre Jeunet maybe?). The movie then could’ve been titled “Japon!” or “Japonais!”, but then I guess Tokyo! is just as fine. And two out of three isn’t so bad.