Three for the show

Japanese triptych has a lot more going for it than at first meets the eye

Apr 22, 2009 at 12:00 am

Tokyo's a city of mutants. At least, that's what the three filmmakers who have been anthologized here seem to think. Invited to offer their view of Japan's sprawling megalopolis, Michel Gondry, Léos Carax and Bong Joon-ho have created a triptych of exaggerated urban alienation and estrangement. Hardly the love letter that was Je'Taime Paris, the trio created a cramped world of absurd magical-realism, aimless solitude and cultural disconnection. It doesn't always work, but it sure keeps your attention. And, whether the directors intended to or not, their themes and approaches summon the stylized fiction of Haruki Murakami, the literary authority on contemporary Japanese neuroses.

As with most anthologies of this type — New York Stories, Mystery Train, Night on Earth — the tales don't necessarily fit together, favoring, instead, the stylistic and narrative fetishes of their creators. And yet, there is thematic connective tissue here, as the characters in each vignette cope with detachment from themselves and their fellow man. You may not get a picture postcard lay of Tokyo's land, but you will experience the atmosphere and psychology of one of the world's most urbanized societies, a place that seems to invite eccentricity, then do everything it can to quash it.

First up is Michel Gondry's "Interior Design," a surprisingly restrained doodle that follows the rudderless girlfriend (Ayako Fujitani) of an ambitious young filmmaker. Marginalized and friendless, she undergoes a surreal Kafkesque transformation that, at first, horrifies but then satisfies her inability to find her place. Feminist commentary or quirky artifice? Gondry could be reacting to Japan's constricted culture and environment. What's surprising is his trademark flights of fancy don't overwhelm this minor-key tale.

The middle and craziest offering is Léos Carax's "Merde," a politicized monster movie and tongue-in-cheek spoof. A feral sewer dweller (the unnervingly bizarre Denis Lavant) terrorizes Tokyo's downtown — first by stealing cigarettes, flowers and money, later by tossing grenades into crowds — to the theme from Godzilla. When the grungy "creature" is caught and put on trial, it's discovered that he only speaks his own incomprehensible language. Good thing French attorney Voland (Jean-Francois Balmer) — first seen with a decapitated cat's head in hand — can translate, offering a spirited but futile defense. His client is accused of everything from supporting al Qaeda to joining the Aum cult. Merde's only reply is to claim hatred for "innocent people." His fate is surprisingly severe. Loony as the segment is, Carax has very big fish to fry, commenting on our post-9/11 paranoia, the sensationalistic media, and society at large, which, he charges, is responsible for creating its own monsters.

Bong Joon-ho finishes with his austere and intense "Shaking Tokyo," which, despite its more outrageous conceits, focuses on character instead of whimsy. An obsessive shut-in (Teruyuki Kagawa) catches a glimpse of a pizza delivery girl's garter and falls in love. However, his attempts to re-engage with the outside world seem to cause powerful earthquakes. Can you say metaphor? Still, Bong Joon-ho gracefully balances Kagawa's pain and longing against the tectonic shifts going on inside and outside his sad-faced world. Oh, there's also a character controlled by push-button tattoos and pizza-delivery robot.

It's odd that these three foreign filmmakers all encountered metropolitan Tokyo as a place for fantastical reinvention and surreal self-expression. From Gondry's light-handed poetry to Carax's insanely mannered parody to Bong's moody contemplation, the tales are decidedly nonliteral in a city that seems hyperliteral in scope and complexity. And while, individually, each vignette comes across as freakishly frivolous, added up together there's a lot more going on than meets the eye.

Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, April 24 and 25, and at 5 p.m. on Sunday, April 26. Call 313-833-3237.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].