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Found in Translation

Tokyo! (2008)

Liberation Entertainment

“Tokyo!” presents its viewers with a unique opportunity: the chance to see three filmmakers given full creative license to interpret a theme without restriction. Michel Gondry, Léos Carax and Bong Joon-ho have been brought together to work on three separate projects directly tied to the common motif of the sprawling megalopolis. Master stylists all, the men go about their work with demonstrable exuberance, clearly enthused by the artistic freedom granted them and the chance to work in a city that’s very much at the cultural fore of the 21st century.

Unfortunately, only Mr. Bong’s project transcends its limiting, carefully calibrated stylistic mode to achieve something substantive. “Interior Design” by Mr. Gondry and “Merde” by Mr. Carax suffer from a predisposition towards quirky artifice that often supersedes the substance of the content at hand. The films are less engaged with life in modern Tokyo than evoking DIY childlike wonder (Mr. Gondry’s) and crafting a politicized monster movie (Mr. Carax's).

So ephemeral it practically evaporates into nothingness, “Interior Design” follows a young couple named Hiroko (Ayako Fujitani) and Akira (Ryo Kase), living with a friend as they look for jobs. Mr. Gondry typically operates in Kafkaesque territory, so it comes as no great surprise that he does so here. He tries to disguise the thinness of the narrative and its total lack of dramatic resonance by adding one restrained surrealist touch after another.

“Merde” begins strikingly. An iris in on a sewer gives way to a remarkable long take in which the camera tracks Merde (Denis Lavant) – half monster, half man – as he stalks down a busy city street, devouring everything in his path. Mr. Carax repeats the shot later, arming Merde with grenades that he dispatches gleefully. Sadly, nothing in the rest of the short matches these virtuoso pieces of showmanship. From there things devolve into a stagnant, preachy affair in which Merde is put on trial, and Mr. Carax launches a full scale assault on media sensationalizing, society at large and their culpability in the monster’s actions.

Mr. Bong’s “Shaking Tokyo” places a premium on character over spectacle, even while featuring two inexplicable earthquakes, a character controlled by push button tattoos and a robot delivering pizza. In so doing, it leaves a far more lasting impression than its predecessors on the triple bill, relying on subtlety and silence rather than overwrought art direction. The Man (Teruyuki Kagawa) lives a hermit’s life, sealed off from the tumultuous outside world inside the confines of his front door.

His entire contact with the rapidly changing Tokyo surrounding his home comes in the routine deliveries of pizza he orders. When it one day arrives courtesy of a mysterious, attractive woman (Yu Aoi), the Man is driven to later leave his home to seek her out. “Shaking Tokyo” is in many ways no less elliptical than “Interior Design” and “Merde,” but it achieves a deeper, truer visceral impact. The film poignantly evokes the Man’s pain and longing, powerfully felt in Mr. Kagawa’s sad, suffering face. If only it were possible to fast forward through the prior two segments to get there.


Opens on March 6 in Manhattan.

Directed by Michel Gondry, Léos Carax and Bong Joon-ho; produced by Masa Sawada and Michiko Yoshitake; released by Liberation Entertainment. In Japanese, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 52 minutes. This film is not rated.

WITH: Ayako Fujitani (Hiroko), Ryo Kase (Akira), Denis Lavant (Creature), Jean-François Balmer (Maître Voland), Teruyuki Kagawa (the Man) and Yu Aoi (Pizza Delivery Girl).


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