Reviewed by: Emma Slawinski

As a Japanese air hostess announces your departure for Narita airport in a soft, chattery voice, you sink deeper into the cinema seat and feel you might well be taking off. But your destination is not the place often fetishised in film as a fluorescent, pulsating metropolis. Tokyo! shows the city’s subdued side, filtered through the existence of ordinary inhabitants.

Michel Gondry’s Interior Design opens the triptych. An ambitious amateur film-maker and his girlfriend arrive from the provinces, but starting out in Tokyo puts a strain on their relationship. The girl, Hiroko (Ayako Fujitani), feels directionless, and as her life spirals further out of control she undergoes a strange metamorphosis. Gondry has a knack for slamming together pathos, humour and horror with startling and compelling results, and he pulls it off again here.

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Bong Joon Ho’s end-piece, Shaking Tokyo, is equally absorbing. It peers into the life of a hikikomori – a recluse. The man, who has not left his house in 10 years, annotates the film with observations on the freedom of his urban prison and the satisfaction he finds in his home’s strange, obsessive order. Then a beautiful pizza delivery girl shows up – who seems to be trapped in a prison of her own – and becomes a reason for the man to venture out. Teruyuki Kagawa’s hikokomori is awkward but determined, with a winning vulnerability, and his still little world between four walls is beautifully shot.

The middle section, Leos Carax’s Merde, is a great idea that doesn’t quite come off. Its absurd, Pythonesque humour really sings out in parts and is the punchy interlude that its more pensive bedfellows need. Revisiting Tokyo’s reputation as a monster magnet, Carax has dreamt up a sinister bearded man of the sewers (Denis Lavant), who resembles a crazed, oversized leprechaun in his emerald velvet suit. The sewer-man emerges at random, terrorizing Tokyoites and becoming public enemy number one when he finds a cache of grenades underground and lays siege to the city.

There are some uproarious, gloriously funny scenes, but Carax lets Merde drag on too long, and throws around some callous stereotypes that give it a sour note. A reference to Nanking is pointedly flagged, but not elaborated, and far-right xenophobia and capital punishment also make appearances. All a bit heavy handed for what is essentially a monster-movie spoof.

Luckily the triple bill ends on Bong’s much more satisfying piece. And there is so much that’s enjoyable and enchanting about Tokyo! that I can almost forgive Carax’s excesses. Good cinema should transport you to another place entirely; this film takes us to a Tokyo we’ve never seen before, three times over.

Reviewed on: 23 Jul 2009
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Three off-beat visions of the famous city.
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Director: Michel Gondry, Leos Carax, Bong Joon-Ho

Writer: Michel Gondry, Leos Carax, Bong Joon Ho

Starring: Ryo Kase, Denis Lavant, Teruyuki Kagawa

Year: 2008

Runtime: 107 minutes

Country: France, Japan


London 2008

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