Like Paris, je t’aime and New York Stories, Tokyo! is an omnibus endeavor comprising three short films by Michel Gondry, Leos Carax, and Joon-ho Bong. All take place in the bustling, glamorous capital of Japan; all have surrealistic elements. But only one chapter is an unqualified success.
That would be Tokyo!’s first story, “Interior Design.” Even if you don’t pay attention to the order of the directors’ names in the film’s neat lead-in—a flight attendant’s announcement that you’re about to land in the city, followed by an animated skyline brightly colored with thick Simpsons-esque outlines and curves—there’s an a-ha moment in the first short that makes you think, Gondry! The story, based on a New York–set graphic novel by Gabrielle Bell, begins normally enough, following a young couple as they crash in a friend’s tiny downtown apartment while they look for work and a place of their own. The guy, Akira (Ryo Kase), is a filmmaker who’s pleased that he’s booked a screening of his pretentious, awful movie and content to take a job as a gift-wrapper. Hiroko (Ayako Fujitani), though, feels increasingly worse about herself after people repeatedly ask if she starred in the film and proves hopeless with wrapping paper.
Like a Japanese Wendy and Lucy, “Interior Design” is a bittersweet portrayal of a girl old enough to be independent but clueless about what to do with her life—and struggling with financial setbacks to boot. Still, the Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind director films Tokyo gorgeously, the city appearing as magnetic as New York even as Hiroko sadly wanders its streets. And when the story takes a surrealistic turn, the segment becomes even more gripping—it’s an odd but cool little surprise tacked on the end of a thus-far straightforward script, and despite its otherworldliness, the twist brings off an emotionally satisfying conclusion.
The middle short, “Merde,” is the least successful of the three. Written and directed by The Lovers on the Bridge’s Carax, “Merde” tells the story of a caveman-like creature (Denis Lavant) who periodically emerges from manhole covers to torment Tokyo crowds and eat flowers and cash. At first, the monster’s antics are pretty funny—with one milky eye, an unruly beard, and a green suit, Merde is like a leprechaun gone wild, shoving people aside, licking their arms, and tossing cigarette butts in baby carriages. But once he discovers old grenades underground, he starts killing people and is put on trial, speaking gibberish that only a haughty French lawyer (Jean-Francois Balmer) can understand. While the courtroom scenes are interestingly filmed, with Carax often splitting the screen and simultaneously offering different angles on the same thing, the constant babbling that eventually reveals Merde’s hatred toward the Japanese is boring at best and ugly at worst. Either way, the story gets old fast.
Joon-ho Bong, director of The Host, concludes Tokyo! with a love story titled “Shaking Tokyo” that goes from touching to schmaltzy. Its focus is a reclusive middle-aged man (Teruyuki Kagawa) who hasn’t left his apartment in 10 years. Even when he orders food—pizza every Saturday—he doesn’t make eye contact with the delivery person. Until, that is, the day the delivery man is actually a delivery girl, who passes out in his doorway when an earthquake strikes. He’s fascinated by both her loveliness and the “buttons” tattooed on her arm—ones for “sadness,” “headaches,” and, he later finds, “love”—and decides to venture outside to find her after she quits her job. Like the other segments, “Shaking Tokyo” has some compelling touches, from the empathetic gloominess of the protagonist’s isolation to the white-hot brightness of the man’s first moments outside to the creepy outline of the girl through a thick, obscured glass door. But it feels rather lightweight compared to Tokyo!’s strong start, and the sudden, life-altering “love” between the man and the very young girl is too eye-rolling to swallow. Overall, though, Tokyo! wins points for one thing: These are stories you definitely haven’t seen before, and nowadays originality is sometimes enough.