Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Mar 27, 2009 9:23 am 
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Published on Cinescene.

Three notes from the underground

Instead of the multiple smidgens of directorial talent applied to the touristically-labeled Paris, je t'aime, the sly, entertaining Tokyo! is a less wide-ranging but more solid omnibus city portrait more in the vein of Sixties collections like RoGoPaG or Bocaccio '70. Rather than dizzying us with the work of a dozen directors, Tokyo! is a triptych, and its three helmers though stylistically unlike have made films unified not just by their Tokyo location but by the ways they touch on themes of hysteria, anomie, concealment, and mutation. All also comment pointedly on aspects of Japanese culture, and radiate with both terror and tenderness.

A young aspiring filmmaker in Gondry's ironically named "Interior Decoration" indulges in a monologue about ghosts living in the narrow spaces between the big city buildings. Perhaps frustrated by his egotism, his girlfriend later disappears, morphed into a chair. Carax's anti-hero "Merde" is a bold subterranean mutant lurking in Tokyo sewers who emerges only to terrorize the population. Bong's film is about one of the city's hikikomori, a radical recluse whose sealed apartment is filled with stacks of magazines and books and hundreds of rolls of toilet paper and identical empty pizza boxes all arranged in perfect order.

Each story contains outbursts of warmth and longing: Gondry's young couple have a desire for each other that lingers even after mutation and flight; Carax's Monsieur Merde is protected by a more than sympathetic French trial lawyer who comes to defend him in Japanese court and shares his oddities and his strange language; the recluse of Bong's "Shaking Tokyo" ventures out into the dazzling sunlight after a decade because he's fallen in love with a pizza girl and can't live without her.

"Interior Decoration" shows how Tokyo is for a young couple coming from the provinces. With no place to park their car, they find it's soon hauled away and crushed. They live in a tiny apartment with an unwilling friend; their search for a place of their own is a tour of the city's most hideous cramped matchbox dwellings. Working at an absurdly demanding part-time job wrapping packages like origami, the young "artist" (Ryo Kase) gets to show his avant-garde film, but that opportunity may lead at best only to work in advertising, or a new girlfriend. It's a small country, but it has too many people. Chauvinism is also satirized in the boy's self-absorption and the advice the girl gets that as she doesn't matter. The morphing theme might also allude to a desire to vanish into the woodwork resulting from inbred servility. Gondry's film has a sweetness to it, but it's also depressing and Kafkaesque. Its gernaneness to Japan is evident in the very typical mannerisms of the young people. Its finale may be a gentle allusion to Edogawa Rampo's famous story of the man who became trapped inside an upholstered armchair. Here the girl has no such refuge: she turns bony and wooden. The effect is chilling, but subtle. Instead of dizzyingly inventive cuteness, this time a more restrained Gondry gives us Kafka with a Japanese accent. The limitations pay off.

The stronger, if cruder looking "Merde" evokes 19th-century horror or early film stories of mysterious hidden mass killers. It's rife with satirical commentary on such Japanese things as xenophobia and the obsequiousness of TV newscasters. Denis Lavant (important in Claire Denis' Beau Travail) has an arrestingly un-handsome face already, and here he combines his intense awkwardness with forceful ticks as the repulsive but self-possesed being known as "Marde." Jean-François Balmer has fun doing a professional actor's version of a child's made-up language as Maître Voland, the French barrister who spots Merde as a member of his gene pool and comes to Tokyo to defend him. Carax's segment has the precipitous forward motion of a news documentary. Its being shot in crude-looking digital video may support this effect, but robs the film of the potential poetry of an outcast. Either way, the shots of Merde shambling through the city scaring people lingers in the mind.

As for Bong's "Shaking Tokyo," its beautifully bright, clear, and simple images are a welcome contrast. Its theme is no less dark in implication and closer to the city's real sociological horrors. The story about a recluse is relevant to the Tokyo theme. Again the Japanese character is caricatured or made extreme: the Japanese are shy and reserved, but they don't shut themselves in a room and refuse to go out. Except that a surprising number of them actually do. Statistics show the hikikomori phenomenon to be disturbingly common. Reports indicate there may be a million of these isolates in Japan, including as much as twenty percent of the adolescent male population. Teruyuki Kagawa, who plays the man, has a cowed, downcast expression that interestingly enough American moviegoers can see in another picture, Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Tokyo Sonata, where he's a pater familias who hides from his family that he's out of work. That new film, in which the director departs from a J-horror mastery that was going stale, has done surprisingly well with US critics, perhaps because its focus on joblessness strikes a familiar topical note. "Shaking Tokyo" is full of a repressed, quivering tenderness but also rage and aggression, and its timidity is tempered with the exhibitionism of the pizza girl (Yu Aoi), with her provocative garter-belt outfit out of anime porn and her emotional-push-button tattoos. The setting may remind viewers of a film by Bong's more famous countryman, Park Chan-wook--Oldboy, which also begins with a man long in solitary confinement. But Kagawa's character doesn't escape to devour a live octopus and wreck violence on his enemies. He staggers out into a sunny Tokyo suburb where repeated earthquakes force other hikikomori out of their apartment lairs and he finds the pizza girl and tries to stop her from diving into hikikomori-hood herself. And we stagger out of our matinee, reminded if only momentarily of why we love movies. Strange things happen in the dark. And Tokyo is full of them, it appears.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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