A trying Tokyo! triptych

There’s a problem facing all short films, and it’s one the three directors of Tokyo! fail to solve. It is that the films’ subject matter needs to fit its timeframe.

There’s a problem facing all short films, and it’s one the three directors of Tokyo! fail to solve. It is that the films’ subject matter needs to fit its timeframe.

Trying to cram a heap of complex ideas into a short is never a good idea. But drawing out one straightforward thought into a too-long space won’t work either. Each Tokyo! filmmaker falls into this latter quandary.

If I keep glancing at my watch, desperate to see the end of your 35-minute movie, well, you probably screwed up.

According to the press materials, Tokyo! is an attempt to, “… come together for an omnibus triptych examining the nature of one unforgettable city as it’s shaped by the disparate people who live, work (and even run amok!) inside one enormous, constantly evolving, densely populated Japanese megalopolis. …”

I’m pretty sure this description was tacked on after the films were made, because the shorts profess no running theme or idea, at least none that I can see. They’re all set in Tokyo, sure, but how does a flower-eating, Irish-looking sewer demon relate to a couple who live in a claustrophobic apartment? Or an agoraphobic man who falls asleep on the toilet? I can’t imagine that these three directors—Michel Gondry, Bong Joon-ho and Leos Carax—planned to have their work packaged together, and it shows.

The first section, Interior Design, by Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) probably has the clearest thesis. It’s about a young Japanese couple who move into a friend’s tiny apartment, unable to find their own place, and struggle to create a life in the difficult new world of the metropolis around them. Eventually the boyfriend, a clueless aspiring filmmaker, finds a job. But the young woman still feels useless. And the story drags on. In the end, she finds her purpose through a highly unusual and oddly beautiful transformation. (I won’t ruin the surprise, because it’s the only interesting part of the whole film.)

Gondry’s section works OK, and clearly addresses the concerns of city living. Cut the 10 minutes of moody nothingness in the middle and you’d have an excellent little short.

The second section, Merde, by Carax, is the most exciting, and by far the oddest. Its narrative is centered around a man-demon-thing (called “Merde”) that lives in Tokyo’s sewers, coming up solely to cause havoc and destruction. Also, he eats only flowers, looks like an Irish caveman on meth and speaks by grunting and slapping his face. His rampages are weird, violent spectacles, full of splayed body parts and screaming. But when he’s finally caught, the film gets confusing, saved only by its continuing weirdness. Carax seems to be addressing the way Japanese culture deals with foreign invasion—a mixture of fear and fetishization—though that gets lost in the bubbly insanity of the narrative.

If you see only one movie this year about a filthy demon-man going on a grenade-throwing spree in downtown Tokyo, make it Merde.

Finally, there’s Shaking Tokyo, by Joon-ho (The Host). This is the most cliché and annoying of the three sections, dealing with an agoraphobic man who finds his ability to love shaken loose by, um, earthquakes. I love subtle metaphors.

Boring, overlong and trite, this section doesn’t even rise to the mediocre heights of what came before it, and throws away its most interesting scenes in favor of sentimental pap we’ve seen before.

While this collection of films is not perfect, there’s some interesting elements going on here. Merde alone is so goddamned strange that it’s almost worth the price of admission itself. Still, Tokyo! seems thrown together and unsure of itself, like three incomplete works in need of a lot more finesse. If this is what Tokyo is like, well, I’m never visiting again.