The three short films that make up the feature-length triptych "Tokyo!" add up to a puzzle. It's not clear what these odd, often surreal and sometimes touching cinematic short stories have to do with one another. And as with conceptual art that joins things that don't seem to have any obvious relationship, you find yourself torn between finding connections and making them.
The city of Tokyo is the most obvious link between the three films. The first chapter, "Interior Design," begins with the arrival of a young couple into the world of crowded streets, heartless landlords and entry-level jobs. The comic yet nightmarish second installment, "Merde," takes us under the streets, where a psychopathic man takes refuge when he's not terrorizing the social world above. The final installment, "Shaking Tokyo," shows us a society of recluses, in retreat from the stress and strain of urban life.
Anyone who has ever arrived in a big city with nothing more than a little ambition will feel the old butterflies in the stomach as Tokyo picks its winners and losers in "Interior Design." Directed by Michel Gondry, who brought us "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," this is the most poignant of the trio. "Merde," Leos Carax's contribution, is a whiplash ride between the deadly serious and the ridiculous. In it, you sense the city's deeper anxieties about the Aum Shinrikyo cult, which conducted a deadly 1995 sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway. Bong Joon-Ho's "Shaking Tokyo" tackles a phenomenon within Japanese society, the hikikimori, or shut-ins, but it's done with a refreshingly light touch and perhaps a touch of hope.
If there are thematic connections, they are abstract. All three films deal with things hidden, or disappearing, or suppressed. But Tokyo, if anything, becomes more of a mystery after "Tokyo!" than it was before.
That's the strength and curse of the film. If you can't find real connections between its disparate stories, you can always make them up yourself. But if that kind of film frustrates you, think twice before booking a ticket to "Tokyo!"
-- Philip Kennicott (April 10, 2009)
Contains mild violence. In Japanese with English subtitles.
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