The second collaboration between Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí – who had fallen out with each other by the time of production – is another surreal film, this time a series of vignettes that seem to mock the absurdity of modern life, as it was in France in 1930. The main link throughout is a couple (Lya Lys and Gaston Modot) who are trying to have sex but are constantly thwarted by others, such as religious figures, family members, etc. There are some typically strong images: the woman fellates the toe of a statue, apparently to ease her sexual frustration; a crucifix has scalps hanging from it that blow in the wind; a young boy is shot in a chillingly cold fashion; an old man at the side of the road is needlessly attacked. All very shocking at the time, no doubt, and some of it still surprising to see today. Buñuel’s gift for editing by associating similar objects and shapes or by linking ideas is clear for all to see, and it’s one of the very first sound films made in France, though you wouldn’t describe it as un talkie, exactly. (***)
This surreal triptych of short films, all set in modern day Tokyo, brings together three adventurous filmmakers with visions that are sometimes wildly different and occasionally quite similar. Two of them – Michel Gondry and Leos Carax – are French, and the third – Bong Joon-ho – is Korean, but all three produce the kind of insightful work that you wouldn’t necessarily expect from someone who does not call the city home. Rather than the names of any of the actors, only the names of the three directors appear on most of the promotional material for Tokyo! (and the opening credits), leaving you in no doubt as to who the star turns are.
Michel Gondry’s film, Interior Design, is an adaptation of the comic Cecil and Jordan in New York. Hiroko and Akira (Ayako Fujitani and Ryō Kase) are a young couple who move from the countryside to Tokyo, where they stay as guests in a cramped apartment owned by their old school friend Akemi (Ayumi Ito). Akira is an aspiring filmmaker and he puts a lot of time and energy into an upcoming screening of an experimental film he has made while Hiroko goes flathunting around the city, disappointed that they can’t even afford the many rat-infested hovels she is shown. At the film screening one audience member informs Akira of the struggle faced by creative types in relationships; often the other half of the couple feels useless or underappreciated. Hiroko relates to this comment, and undergoes a quite bizarre metamorphosis as a result.
Leos Carax’s film Merde is up next. In this strange tale an odd-looking character called Merde (Denis Lavant) rises up from the sewers and, to begin with, makes a nuisance of himself by randomly licking girls’ armpits, stealing crutches from people who need them to walk, and carrying out other unpleasant acts. As the story progresses Merde’s actions become more extreme, and it’s not long before he is, essentially, a terrorist, flinging live hand grenades into random crowds during one terrifying killing spree. He becomes something of a cause célèbre, with huge media and public interest springing up in the wake of his attacks, but eventually he is captured and forced to face a televised trial.
The only problem is Merde speaks a language only three people in the world can understand. One of these is French magistrate Maître Voland (Jean-François Balmer), who looks similar to Merde and acts as a translator in the Japanese court. Merde is tried, found guilty and sentenced to death (Japan still uses capital punishment, and judges often push for the death penalty by hanging as the maximum sentence for multiple homicide convictions), but he is not quite as easy to hold captive as he initially seems, and lectures the Japanese on their attitudes to outsiders.
Bong Joon-ho’s story, Shaking Tokyo, tells the story of an unnamed Toyko “shut-in”, or hikikomori, played by Teruyuki Kagawa. Apparently a phenomenon in Japanese society, hikikomori are people who have decided to withdraw almost completely from society, refusing to go outside or interact with other people and choosing to be isolated at home. This hikikomori has been inside for over a decade, neatly stacking empty pizza boxes and toilet rolls in his house, but is forced to interact with a pizza delivery girl (Yū Aoi) when an earthquake strikes the city and she collapses in front of him. After he revives her (in, it must be said, a very weird way) she leaves, but he spends weeks thinking about the girl, and finally summons the courage to go outside and track her down. The only problem is that the city has, slowly, turned into one occupied by tens of millions of hikikomori, and the streets are eerily quiet; can he find her … or anyone? And will a bigger earthquake strike?
The three stories are surreal, but despite the individual stamp on each made by the directors the tales link together well to form a cohesive whole, partly because the first and third parts are shot for the most part on some of Tokyo’s plainer residential streets. There is none of Sofia Coppola’s focus on the mesmerising, future-neon playground of Tokyo – no bright lights of Shinjuku or crazily-dressed Harajuku girls here – but merely street after non-descript street as backdrop, the kind filled with izekayas, apartments, houses, wires, pylons, local shops and not much else.
They also link together through one theme in particular: lack of communication. In Gondry’s story the two main characters have been together for some time but perhaps do not communicate as easily as they should. One is wrapped up in creative pursuits while the other is frustrated by sorting out the practical issues associated moving to a new city. In Carax’s short film the lack of communication is more obvious, the Japanese authorities unable to understand anything Merde says, and vice versa. In the third Bong Joon-ho concerns himself with introversion, exaggerating the effects that occur when too many people in a society have a natural tendency to withdraw from others.
Carax’s film is perhaps the most interesting of the three, largely due to the fact it is the most disturbing. It appears to be a comment on Japanese xenophobia, along with Japan’s immigration policy, but could just as easily be referencing the sarin gas attacks perpetrated on the Tokyo subway in the mid-1990s (Merde comes up from below the ground in order to attack people at random, but there’s more than just a hint here to link it to the Aum attacks). Or even all three. There is also a subtle link to Godzilla – music from that film can be heard when Merde goes on the rampage, and Carax also plays with the notion that Japanese society is somehow being continually punished (or wishes to reflect inwards and punish itself) for the country’s historical actions.
Gondry’s tale is played straight until a bizarre twist a few minutes from the end. It’s quite disconcerting to watch, but the shock factor is good and it’s an interesting comment on the tendency of people to pick and then resolutely stick with a certain role within life’s big play.
Bong’s short is filled with interesting, eerie visuals, such as a deserted Tokyo, a bizarre robot pizza delivery guy and – at the end of one excellent sequence – a street full of hikikomori standing still after an earthquake, before they all retreat into their homes once more. Most bizarrely of all, the pizza delivery girl is covered in tattooed ‘buttons’ that must be pressed under certain circumstances – like if she gets a headache, or if she is required to be loving or fearful. What does this mean? Are we turning into unthinking robots? It’s a strange film which equates the feeling of love at first sight with the power of an earthquake, but it does so in a firmly non-cheesy, non-clumsy way.
At times Tokyo! feels like a competition to see who can make the weirdest, most-out-there short film, but this also makes for three separate segments that are equally imaginative and at times very witty; there’s no po-faced chin-stroking going on here, just some highly enjoyable oddness. Despite their surrealist natures, all three are easy to follow, and well acted (Lavant is particularly convincing in his role as the gruesome, otherworldly Merde), and the length of each story is just about right. On the basis of their work here, I would love to see each of these three maverick directors make an entire film set in Tokyo. It seems to me as if they know the place well enough to make it a worthwhile project.
If you’re interested in watching Tokyo! it’s currently available on Youtube here.
Directed by: Michel Gondry, Bong Joon-ho, Leos Carax
Written by: Michel Gondry, Gabrielle Bell, Leos Carax, Bong Joon-ho
Starring: Ayako Fujitani, Ryō Kase, Denis Lavant, Jean-François Balmer, Yū Aoi, Teruyuki Kagawa
Running Time: 118 Minutes