Tokyo! (2008): City Stories, Anthology by Gondry, Carax, Bong Joon-ho (Cannes Fest)

Cannes Film Fest 2008–With the notable of “Paris, I Love You” (“Paris je t’aime”) and a few others, most film anthologies present insurmountable challenges and do not really work, either because their filmmakers share little in common other than a broad issue or because the format itself presents limitations.  They also tend to encourage for inevitable comparisons of the relative contribution of each director.  This was the case of “New York Stories,” a compilation of shorts by Scorsese, Coppola, and Woody Allen, and more recently of “Eros,” by Antonioni, Soderbergh, and Wong Kar-Wai.


“Tokyo!” which premiered at Cannes in the Certain Regard section, suffers from the usual problems, plus two of the three directors, Michel Gondry and Leos Carax, are of the same nationality, French.  The third is the South Korean horror master, Bong Joon-ho.  It would have been more interesting to include a segment by a Japanese director.  Each of the trio has a small cult following in and outside their own country,  which means that this mildly diverting but not entirely satisfying anthology is headed to the art circuit world. 


Singly and jointly, the helmers aim to capture the spirit of the Asian capital in the way that “Paris je t’Aime” and “New York Stories” did for the respective cities they celebrated or just commented on.  To that purpose, the artists chose genres they are familiar with, such as horror and sci-fi, while looking at the place from the outside, as foreigners.


A playful effort to convey the multiple and diverse meanings of the famous city,  “Tokyo!” bears slight resemblance to Sofia Coppola’ 2003 cross-cultural tale, “Lost in Translation,” which won the Original Screenplay Oscar.  Among the satirical targets is the civility of Japanese people, the politeness of the news anchors, the culture’s penchant to turn any good idea or object into a commercial, mass-marketed tool.  

Gondry’s short, “Interior Design,” is the most interesting and entertaining of the trio.  Set on a stormy night, it centers on two amiable drifters, an aspiring filmmaker Akira (Ryo Kase) and his girlfriend Hiroko (Ayako Fujitani), who arrive in Tokyo and like all newcomers immediately look for accommodation and employment.  The third character is Ayumi Ito, who plays their former friend, a reluctant Tokyo host.

In the last part, relying on animation and surreal style, Gondry captures the fantasy spirit of his literary source, Gabrielle Bell’s graphic short story ‘Cecil and Jordan in New York, transplanting its locale to Tokyo.  Overall, Gondry depicts the horror elements in old-fashioned way, keeping his camera focused on the two performers, though there is less whimsy, and more restraint, in his visual style than in his former works (“The Science of Sleep,” “Be Kind Rewind!”).

An odd monster parody “Merde” is Carax’s first film since “Pola X,” the disappointing Cannes entry of 2000.  Inspired by “Godzilla” and other similar stories, Carax tells of a hideous humanoid (played by cult actor Denis Lavant), which emerges from the sewers onto the streets of Tokyo. 

A green-suited, red-bearded freak, Merde, as this terrorist calls himself, labels Japanese people as “disgusting.”  And you can’t blame him.  Though admired by rebellious and non-conformist youths, he’s a victim of Japanese nationalists.  After wreaking havoc, the creature is captured and interrogated by the authorities, and there is a nice court scene dominated by an eccentric French attorney (Jean-Francois Balmer). There’s some humor in spoofing TV news report and Japanese prison system.  Too bad that Carax can’t decide whether his short is a genre item or a message film about discrimination and intolerance.

In Bong’s arty but slight “Shaking Tokyo,” Teruyuki Kagawa plays a hikikomori, a recluse who hasn’t left his apartment in a decade.  Unable to make an eye contact with anyone, it takes a visit by a beautiful pizza delivery girl (Yu Aoi) and an earthquake to get the hermit out of his element.  Using smooth camera movement and warmly lighting, Bong and cinematographer Jun Fukumoto give their segment the proper atmosphere.

Unlike Asian horror omnibus “Three Extremes,” the directors of “Tokyo!” judging by the middling results, Tokyo the city has not inspired much these filmmakers. Perhaps the secret to portmanteaus, as “Paris, I Love You,” demonstrated, is to have many segments (in this case 18) that are shorts and diverse and linked in a more specific way.

End Note

“Tokyo!” should not be confused with “Tokyo Sonata,” which also played at the 2008 Cannes Film Fest.