Solitude in Tokyo: A Threesome You Can Feel Part Of

Another "hikikomori"?

For those of us with short attention spans, it can sometimes be difficult devoting our attention to a single story.  Without enough suspense – and the right kind of it – we can quickly lose interest in characters and what’s at stake for them.  When it comes to books, we can eschew whole novels in favour of short stories, but it’s not as easy with films.  Unless we check out a short film fest, that is, and how common are they?  Thankfully, there’s at least one option for us to check out – three short films compiled and given the title of the one thing they have in common: Tokyo!

Directed by Michel Gondry, Leos Carax and Joon-ho Bong respectively, the films collectively address the experience of living in Japan’s most populated city.  What does it take to get noticed, asks Gondry’s “Interior Design,” in which a jobless young woman feels unappreciated by her boyfriend and one day finds herself turning into a piece of furniture.  Prior to this transformation, we are exposed to a couple and their artsy ambitions, both eager to make ends meet but lacking the wherewithal to succeed.  We see bustling streets and claustrophobic apartments that paint us a perpetual concrete landscape for city-dwellers.  But beyond the novelty (or nostalgia), the story dries up – until one day our hero looks at herself in the mirror and sees that something’s not quite right.  And from here, her sorrowful yearning transforms into a quest for purpose.

Taking a turn from the inside to the out, Carax’s “Merde” poses questions about Japanese nationalism and the status of the foreigner.  In it, the “Creature from the Sewers” is a hideous freak that subsists on the nutritional value of cash and flowers and emerges from sewers to terrorize passersby.  After being caught, he explains that he hates the Japanese because they raped his mother.  We don’t derive this from his speaking a normal language, of course, but rather his Jar-Jar Binks-inspired tongues that are translated through a French lawyer, one of the few who can speak it.  The end result is a mish-mash of translations, the chaos of which is echoed by Carax’s use of multiple split-screens.  The lasting impression is that true cross-cultural understanding does not come easily.  And when the media reports that the Creature will get the death penalty, Tokyoites take to the streets to either voice their support or dissent.  What is Tokyo to do when lax immigration laws threaten the status quo?  It’s a question we’re asked to consider, along with other, less consequential ones:  Can one be objective when assessing the “other”?  The Creature is undeniably revolting, but he sees the Japanese as being ugly, too.

While “Merde” is the most political of the three, it is also the most humourous, even if misleadingly so.  The Creature slaps himself to communicate, as does the French lawyer.  Who’d have thought self-abuse could factor in to something as intimate as language?  Following the rash of attacks on Japanese, a news program reports that foreigners with reddish beards have been randomly attacked because they look like the Creature.  This would never happen in Japan, nor would an equal number of people protest against the death penalty for someone who cavalierly tosses grenades at crowds in Shibuya.  The quality of this piece, then, rests in its tackling of the gaijin experience in Tokyo, and the Japanese reaction to that which is markedly different.

If “Interior Design” is the appetizer and “Merde” is the meal (not literally), Joon-Ho Bong’s “Shaking Tokyo” is a dessert that we want more of.  It gives us the most complete character study – a hikikomori (“recluse”) who’s spent ten years locked indoors.  The initial scene has him on a toilet, taking a cardboard roll and impressing it on his palm, wondering when the mark will disappear.  His apartment is impeccably organized – books and magazines piled against one wall, empty pizza boxes piled against another.  He explains how unique he is in his hermit status, not even looking at the pizza deliverers when he pays them.  Then comes the catalyst – partly his own courage in looking the delivery girl in the eye, and partly a providential earthquake.  He later finds out that this young girl has left her job, and his budding love sends him bravely into Tokyo’s oddly deserted streets to find her.

“Shaking Tokyo” encapsulates the essence of Tokyo! as a whole – how can a city so densely populated be so lonely an atmosphere?  How much out of our shells must we come to make a true connection?  The series is about building bridges between cultures, character types and forms of reality.  Like Murakami’s surreal short stories, the trio of directors offers us the supernatural to explain the natural.  What transcends reality on screen is visually stimulating, but more importantly, the surreal framework draws us closer to the overarching theme of isolation vs. interconnectedness.

Tokyo:  A populous city that feels like there are no actual inhabitants living there. – Joon-Ho Bong

In the director’s commentary section of the DVD, Bong expresses an unending desire to rewrite his own screenplays; the only reason he finalizes them is to honour the film’s release date.  Perhaps this is not so much the spirit of the perfectionist as that of the passionate artist.

Verdict:  Well-crafted triptych with enough visual and thematic stimulation to keep the antsy at bay.

4/5

MN

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