Planning a visit to Japan? You might think twice after Tokyo!, a deliberately mystifying triptych from three directors – French filmmakers Michel Gondry and Leos Carax, and Korea’s Bong Joon-ho – who defy cinematic convention. Here, they present the city as a blandly uninviting backdrop against which characters engage in behavior ranging from the mundane to the violent. Much like the directors, they are outsiders peering in, and less than enchanted with what they see.
Who could blame them? For Hiroko and Akira, the young couple from Gondry’s Interior Design, just finding an apartment proves an ordeal. Akira (Ryo Kase) is an aspiring director whose experimental approach to his work could be mistaken for a full-scale assault on the senses. (“The audience shouldn’t feel safe,” he reasons.) Hiroko (Ayako Fujitani), who feels increasingly superfluous – “I’m just the girlfriend,” she tells an effusive fan – wanders the streets in search of a home and a purpose.
No stranger to surrealism, Gondry can’t resist throwing us for a loop with a last-minute, Kafka-esque twist on an otherwise straightforward story, and if Interior Design feels almost arbitrarily fantastical, it remains a sharply amusing diversion.
The same cannot be said for Carax’s Merde, which follows a sewer-dwelling misanthrope who emerges from his subterranean bunker to attack the locals. Carax (1984’s Boy Meets Girl) seems intent on playing the ungracious guest in Tokyo!, mocking his hosts without mercy, but his one-joke narrative, like his simplistic appraisal of the media and its effect on a hyper-consuming populace, falls uncomfortably flat.
Rounding out the trio is Shaking Tokyo, Bong’s oddly arresting tale of a “hikikomori,” or shut-in, who is roused from a decade of hermitlike solitude by a pizza delivery girl. They meet briefly and quite by accident when an earthquake leaves her sprawled on his living room floor, but it’s enough to lure our nameless hero (Teruyuki Kagawa) into the light of day.
Once there, he finds the streets deserted – agoraphobia, it seems, has gripped the city – but that hardly discourages his search for the girl who got away. He finds her, of course, and it’s only then that the absurdity of his self-imposed isolation begins to dawn on him. Luckily, he knows which buttons to push to coax her out of her own shell of an apartment.
Is this enough to make Tokyo! worth a look? I’d say so. Wildly uneven but never uninteresting, it’s exactly what you might expect from a trinity of filmmakers who seem determined to confound expectations – disjointed and problematic at times, inspired and strangely beautiful at others. And for moviegoers who think miles outside the box, it might be just the thing to lure you out of your apartment, too.
Tokyo! opens Friday, March 20 at Landmark’s Lumiere Theatre in San Francisco and Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley.