I have never traveled to Tokyo. With one of the biggest festivals of the year coming up in two days, attending the screening of Tokyo! the movie -- a three-part film directed by Michel Gondry, Léos Carax, and Bong Joon-ho, respectively -- sounded like a good opportunity to take a mental vacation before I am up to my elbows in the SXSW tech-a-palooza that is Texas during the second week of March. As I watched the triptych collaboration between three of world cinema's most brilliant visionaries I realized that I had been to Tokyo -- or at least the Tokyo of their vision, the space where the quiet elegance of our fear and desire intertwines with our outside environment to form an elegy of both love and alienation.
The troika was helmed by Michel Gondry's short film Interior Design. Gondry (in town preparing start to work on Seth Rogan's The Green Hornet) and the lovely actress Ayako Fujitani were on hand to share their personal experiences in making the film. Wanting to make a movie "like it was made by the Japanese," Gondry's Interior Design centers around a narcissistic young filmmaker and his devoted girlfriend, whom he deigns as "lacking ambition." Gondry takes his cue from screenwriter (and comic book author) Gabrielle Bell's insight into the common trope of female isolation, a trope most commercially exemplified by another Tokyo-related film, Lost in Translation. The heroine's material and psychic struggles are even more poignant in juxtaposition with the emotionally desolate landscape of Japan's de-facto capital, owing much to Ayako's masterful performance as a troubled young woman who through Gondry's expert magical realism finds a purpose as (spoiler alert!) an honest-to-goodness chair. Ironically her newfound "use" becomes everything she's ever wanted.
Much like a painting triptych, the middle element of the film was the longest and took the most work to decipher. In Léos Carax's Merde a hideously deformed creature terrorizes Japanese pedestrians until it is captured and eventually sentenced to death. The combination of the visceral grossness of the monster and the outlandish premise put me off slightly, but when viewed in the larger context of the film as whole it makes sense that Carax would create a centerpiece that left the audience a little off kilter -- the ugliness of the human condition sandwiched between two stories about couples.
The final segment, Shaking Tokyo, is Bong Joon-ho's portrayal of a Japanese hikikomori, or obsessive compulsive shut-in who steps a little outside his comfort zone offered poetic closure with literally earth-shaking results. Beautifully rendered by up and comer Joon-ho, the concluding segment is a paean to what love can makes us do, and how everything we've ever wanted is "just outside our comfort zone," or in this case our meticulously ordered apartment. Shaking Tokyo is testament to how one instance of eye contact can be the immutable point from which to rotate the entire universe.
The screening itself was held at the Egyptian Theatre and attracted such cultural luminaries as Eric Nakamura from the Asian pop culture magazine Giant Robot and musician Henry Rollins. Distributed by Liberation Entertainment and Vitagraph Films and opening to wide release on March 20, the audience of mostly French, Japanese, and Korean cultural org members listened to endearing Ayako and Gondry quip about how difficult it is to work in Tokyo where "you are not allowed to block street traffic," and later indulged in Sapporo and snacks while trading their most heartfelt moments from the film, as well as their individual impressions from the shorts.
As a whole, Tokyo!'s greatest success is in that each individual director makes direct eye contact with the bustling metropolis and turns our preconceived notions of urban Japan as automated and emotionless on their axis; Collectively they paint a sharp portrait of a city vibrant with inner life and more importantly, ambition.
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