Exclusive: The Talented Filmmaking Trio Behind Tokyo!

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[Attention New York readers: We’re giving away two pairs of Tokyo! tickets that will be good for the run of engagement at the Sunshine — with the exception of the 7:30 p.m. show this Saturday night. To enter, leave us the name of your favorite Michel Gondry flick in the comments and register with a valid email address so we can reach you.]

Twenty-three densely-populated wards make up Tokyo, but you won’t find that many segments in Tokyo!, an omnibus feature with a different set-up, but the same city-celebrating spirit as Paris Je T’aime and its sister-city upcoming sequel New York, I Love You. Here, only three renowned directors (Michel Gondry! Leos Carax! and Bong Joon-ho!) etch signature, stand-alone portraits of life in Tokyo’s neon-lit ether, each focusing on big-city issues like the day-to-day pas de deux between ambition and alienation or the larger-than-thou scale that can numb, if not overwhelm, urbanites.

Last week, we had the chance to sit down with Gondry, Carax, and Gabrielle Bell, the acclaimed cartoonist who teamed with Gondry to adapt her story, Cecil and Jordan in New York, for his portion of the triptych — “Interior Design.” Gondry thought his Tokyo! section would be perfect for Bell’s story, which he had initially tried to develop as a feature — “You don’t have much opportunity to do a 30-minute piece,” he adds. So Bell’s four-pager was fleshed out into a thirty-page script, and the soft-spoken cartoonist expresses her satisfaction that “all the elements of the comic were used and that visually, it’s pretty close.” All told, the working rapport between Gondry and Bell is charming — if also occasionally child-like — to behold on page and in person. For instance, when the subject of collaboration is broached, Gondry spins a history lesson: “In France, collaboration is very connected to what we did during World War II. Meaning that it’s the worst thing you can do.”

Obviously, this collaboration yields a much better result — a surreal and touching ode to the struggle to make it in the megacity. The premise is archetypal: a young couple comes to the big city, their un-pawned possessions in tow and dreams unscathed. Akira (Ryo Kase) is an aspiring filmmaker with an upcoming film premiere at a porno theatre; Hiroko (Ayako Fujitani) plays the part of daydreaming, do-anything helpmeet. While staying with a friend at her fit-for-sardines flat, they accustom themselves to the ins-and-outs of city life and scan the classifieds. To Bell, the Tokyo milieu seemed “more appropriate for the story than even New York,” emphasizing the existential flux that arises in an “ambitious and driven city where work is so important that your personal life is secondary.” And, of course, “the apartments are even smaller.”

As the couple searches for a suitable apartment, Gondry humorously riffs on the small-is-standard motif that plagues Tokyo’s housing market. Meanwhile, exasperation from the unexpected landlord mounts — “Did you find your own place?” becomes a clockwork alarm, cramping the tiny digs with pressure. But after Akira’s comical sci-fi film premieres to mild commercial interest, Hiroko’s life changes forever. Discouraged by a personal to-do list with only a “To Be” entry, she undergoes a kooky, Kafkaesque transmogrification — one that thoughtfully highlights her human utility in this hustle-bustle society.

During this metamorphosis, Gondry nearly exposed too much of his female lead for the closed-top country: “We had this big difficulty because we had to show [her] naked. Even in a bikini or underwear it was a big scandal.” With his technological know-how, though, the solution was simple: “We just painted her breast in post-production.”

Like Walter Ruttmann in Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, Gondry keeps Baudelaire’s idea of the flaneur (one of those fellows who walks the city to experience it) close to his coeur throughout, taking in everything from high-rise apartments to a dense sea of anonymous towed cars. The visuals, in short, are simply out of this world. Part of the reason for the vignette’s flexible, on-the-go feel is Gondry’s decision to give his DP Masami Inomoto free reign. Perhaps more essential is the fact that Tokyo doesn’t issue official permits. “You have to go very fast,” he explains. “It’s very interesting with Japanese people: It’s never black and white, it’s always in the grays. ‘Can we shoot?’ They don’t tell yes and no — you end up shooting in these very weird conditions. It’s sort of official, but if somebody arrives you have to go home.”

With Tokyo!, the sun shines again on the enigmatic Carax, who was French film’s enfant terrible during the outré Cinèma du Look movement in the ’80s. It has been a whole decade since Pola X , his backing-breaking adaptation of Herman Melville’s incestuous story Pierre, and 18 years since his breakthrough success, Lovers on the Bridge . He transgresses the cautionary line between tact and attack mode in his portion, “Merde,” a dark, no-holds-barred satire that involves a racist, nihilistic, sewer-residing creature and lays waste to everything from religion to the monster movie. Speaking balderdash and looking much like a hunchbacked leprechaun, Merde (Denis Levant) lives up to his name with his anarchic hit-and-run behavior on Tokyo streets that escalates to code-red terrorism. That’s when the glory-sniffing, eerily similar-looking lawyer Maître Voland (Jean-François Balmer) comes to his rescue from Paris.

With its gears greased by sensation and scandal, the Japanese media engine proceeds to spit out Merde as an absurd symbol for both sides of the coin — whether good or evil, savior or devil, the madman becomes a moneymaking cultural phenomenon (think t-shirts, statues, etc.) thanks to the on-the-hour coverage of his antics and arraignment. As an extreme example of the Other, the news lumps him with household names like Al-Qaeda and Aum Shinrikyo. But by the time Carax ends his tricky short with a millennial example of “Mission Accomplished,” Merde remains shrouded in mystery — he’s simply the mirror to AHEM-phasize what Carax sees as Japan’s more unseemly aspects like xenophobia, dodged war crimes (Nanking 1937 tags a tank that Merde stumbles across in the sewer), and the consumption of, well, “shit.” Carax’s droll commentary about this “closed-off, conservative island” teeters between vulgar and right-on, but that’s because it refuses to pull punches. As Carax suggests, “Ozu and Mizoguchi aren’t inside this film.”

“Merde” also marks Carax’s reunion with leading man Denis Lavant. “I wrote it for him,” the director insists. “If he had said no, I wouldn’t have made it. There aren’t many actors in any generation that can portray such a creature.” He throws out all-time names like Lon Chaney and Chaplin, which, in most circumstances, would be preposterous. But Lavant is entirely mesmeric, whether he’s sallying through pedestrian-dense streets or blabbing his case in court. “He’s both a good dancer and a sculpture,” Carax continues. “He’s very good moving but he’s also solid; you could put him in a chair and just film him for 20 minutes.”

As the missing musketeer, meanwhile, Bong Joon-ho’s “Shaking Tokyo” comes across as the triptych’s quietest and gloomiest take on Tokyo — a soothing antidote to Carax’s toxic oozing. Bong sumptuously tells the tale of a hikikomori (Teruyuki Kagawa), or a Japanese agoraphobe, who has not left his apartment for over a decade. He passes his extended time-out by reading, sleeping, and stacking books, empty pizza boxes, and other supplies into neat, monolithic towers. Groceries, sushi, and pizza are just a speed-dial away; when the delivery person arrives, though, he still avoids physical contact. It’s an existence that resembles a Möbius Strip — he’s been staring at the same side of life, afraid to turn it around.

However, the hikikomori’s no-questions-asked life is turned literally upside down when a delivery girl (Yu Aoi) faints in his doorway during an earthquake. To wake her, he has to touch her — a tactile exchange that sends shockwaves rippling up his spine. Once the girl comes to and returns to the “real” world, the hikikomori decides to return into Bong’s surprisingly brave new world, with love acting as the dangling carrot. Jun Fukumoto’s handsome cinematography of homogenized interiors and placid cityscapes and Kagawa’s altogether touching performance make Bong’s sci-fi segment marvelous in spite of a few sentimental oversights. It also happens to be the one segment that contains Tokyo in all its sprawling, awe-inspiring wonder.