Fantasy lovers looking for the strange and surreal in modern Japanese films will undoubtedly find those elements in the immensely popular J-Horror genre. But for those not in the mood for psychological horror, fans of Japan need look no further than their local movie store. Tokyo! is a thought-provoking triptych that uses the fantastical in order to explore the major theme of urban alienation—
Moviegoers might be surprised to learn that the three shorts in Tokyo!, though filmed in Japan, were directed by non-Japanese citizens. Two Frenchman, Leos Carax and Michel Gondry (of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind fame), and the Korean-born Bong Joon-ho have created stories that go beyond nationality even as they are framed within a specific cultural context. The origins of the directors never detracts from the film's authenticity. On the contrary, their external perspective allows them to critique Japanese society in a more direct way than is allowed their Japanese counterparts.
The first story, "Interior Design," alludes as much to the interior of the psyche as it does your everyday, rundown apaato. It begins with a young couple, a filmmaker and his sweetheart, who are crashing at a friend's apartment in Tokyo. Their aim is to find work and their own place to live, but in an extraordinarily ordinary depiction of real life, they come to learn that such dreams of self-sufficiency may be out of their reach. It's no wonder filmmaker Akira names his movie debut "The Garden of Degradation." In an age where meaningful work grows scarce, rental rates soar, and urbanization brings people together physically while tearing them apart in unseen ways, space to breathe seems to be the sole province of the dead. Akira tells his girlfriend Hiroko that ghosts haunt the small cracks between buildings of Tokyo.
And so they do. Hiroko, with no prospects, money, or future, finds only enough ambition to cut photographs from her friend's magazines. Defeated, she walks through Tokyo and undergoes a transformation so strange she is forced to hide with the invisible ghosts who haunt the spaces between buildings. The transformation itself is awkward, almost frightening to watch.
Her life in the city is a series of tiny degradations. Her car is impounded for lack of money. She struggles to find an affordable apartment that does not already house other, more exoskeletal residents. She watches her boyfriend show more interest in her girlfriend (who is on the corporate career path), and ultimately tries and fails to define herself based on her interests as opposed to the ambition expected of her. Homeless, jobless, worthless. "I just want to feel useful," she explains after the transformation. To become one of the most mundane yet supportive objects in modern life is to escape the endless struggle to survive and create a meaningful life. She is happy with her ghostly existence.
The character Merde, of the eponymous second short "Merde," is equally comfortable with his ghostly existence. He resides in the shadowy underworld of Tokyo's sewers, eking out a living next to other things Japan would rather keep hidden: he sleeps near grenades created to kill innocents during the 1937 Rape of Nanking. Merde is a disturbed man, speaking in a language all his own, caring not a whit for his appearance. He sates his hunger on chrysanthemums, symbolic of the Japanese imperial family, until simply consuming his enemy is not enough. Eventually he wreaks havoc on the people of Tokyo in a number of violent ways, the last of which has citizens fighting amongst themselves about whether or not he should live. A criminal trial sheds light on the reason Merde hates the Japanese: He is a product of their violence. He is a monster, yes, but a monster they created. This short, directed by a foreigner, questions the treatment of foreigners at the hands of the Japanese people in the past as well as the present. In the end Merde refuses to be silenced.
"Shaking Tokyo," the last of the three stories, also features a man in self-imposed exile. He is what the Japanese call a hikikomori, a person who has essentially dropped out of society in a most dramatic way. He does not go outside and only communicates by telephone. He has no job, no friends, and no desire to look even his pizza delivery person in the eye.
A routine delivery is complicated by an earthquake. When the delivery girl is hurt, this shatters the main character's perspective on life. He is forced to engage with the world again. Additionally, he is forced to consider what the world would look like if everyone chose to drop out of society as he did. It is an unnerving dystopic possibility.
Though the hikikomori phenomenon is growing in Japan, it seems this story is less about portraying a vision of an ominous future and more about the alienation that currently plagues city-dwellers. We come out of our houses and deal with other people on a regular basis, but our sense of disconnection is strong. How well do we know our neighbors? Do we even care to know? The depressing state of the world and its endless frustrations may drive some of us to shut down, to close off, only to reappear in the case of a common problem such as a natural disaster. Why do we need such disaster to bring us together? After that happens, after the common threat is gone, will we all hide behind our walls again and revert back to the way things were?
Tokyo! is a film that can be understood on many different levels. For those who want something different, something more than what a realistic depiction of the world can offer, these provoking stories do more than merely entertain. Tokyo! casts off the shackles of the traditional, and in doing so, is better able to critique how urbanization affects our humanity.