Tokyo X 3

Tokyo!

2008, 112 mins., France, unrated (but funny-scary grotesque)
Directors: Interior Design: Michel Gondry, based on Gabrielle Bell’s graphic novel, Cecil and Jordan in New York; Merde: Leos Caraz; and Shaking Tokyo: Joon-ho Bong.
Screenplays: Michel Gondry, Leos Caraz, and Joon-ho Bong.

While all three of the films that make up this surrealistic trilogy of films set in the Tokyo megalopolis are worth seeing, only one, “Merde” (yep, that’s what it means), has special relevance to the cinematic and cultural history of megalopolis. The other two, “Interior Design” and “Shaking Tokyo,” are both purely Kafkaesque, that is, they deal in the first instance with a metamorphosis from human into chair, and in the second, a man who isolates himself in his house for ten years, a fairly widespread Japanese type called a hikkomori.

In truth all three films are compelling visions of grotesques, even if “Interior Design” and “Shaking Tokyo” offer fairly normal looking characters (most of the time). “Interior Design” dramatizes the plight of couple who come to the megalopolis to showcase a remarkably stupid first film, whose claim to fame is the smoke machine set up before the screen to enliven whatever smoke appears in the film. The couple try to find a place to live, even briefly visiting one of the highpoints of Japanese metropolitan housing, the modular pod apartments of Kisho Kurokawa’s famous Nakagin Capsule Tower. “Shaking Tokyo” leads us to expect that true love will triumph over isolation, as the hikkomori falls for his pizza delivery gal who promptly faints during an earthquake. When she chooses to become a hikkomori our anti-hero must act.

All three films are directed by directors who take chances: Interior Design is by Michel Gondry, who directed Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Shaking Tokyo is by Bong Joon-Ho, who directed Host, the tragicomedic updating of the monster that swallows the metropolis.

Merde is the unholy offspring of cinematic CHUDs and the perhaps equally Kafkaesque hero of the story “Man Who Lived Underground” by Richard Wright. Directed by Leos Carax, whose earlier “The Lovers on the Bridge” (1991) depicted homeless characters living under the Pont Neuf in a Paris filmed as if its denizens were in the most beautiful metropolis in the world.

Merde is the name of a barefoot denizen of the underground who pops out of a sewer hole for two walkabouts. He has a strange angular beard, one glass eye, and an awkward but high speed gait. In his first foray he bangs into people, strips a man of a needed crutch, and even spits on a baby in a stroller. For the second, he rushes about armed with hand grenades, part of an undergound cache of World War II materiel replete with Japanese flags and posters celebrating the “great victory” of the Japanese Army in Nanking, China, in 1937, an event most others in the world memorialize as one of the worst atrocities in history. This escapade kills many people and gets our man arrested and charged with murder.

It is not entirely clear if he represents some kind of retribution against the Japanese for their wartime atrocities or he simply hates everyone mainly because, he testifies, everyone is ugly (women’s eyes, especially, I spare you the remark). The film gains some post-modern flair by having his trial precede in three languages—his own (must be heard and seen to be believed), French (his lawyer who looks too much like his client for comfort), and Japanese. The fact that he is executed and comes back to life only increases our perplexity, as he heads off to New York to check out its sewers, no doubt.

Further Reading:

Ebert, Roger. “Tokyo!” Chicago Sun-Times, 11 March 2009. In these “visions of the megalopolis, which would seem to spawn oddly adapted inhabitants” we encounter “three directors, three films, three reasons to rethink moving to Tokyo: You can’t find a place to live, there are earthquakes and a weird goblin may leap from a sewer and grab your sandwich.”

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