Tokyo! Is an anthology film. It contains three movies by three different filmmakers. The first is called Interior Design by Michael Gondry, the second is Merde by Leos Carax, and the third is Shaking Tokyo by Bong Joon Ho. In reading reviews of the film its seems that most critics tend to pick a favorite out of the three and advocate for it, but it is more interesting to consider the three films as a whole. There are some superficial commonalities. All three take place in Tokyo, and all three were made by men who do not live in Tokyo, but it is the themes these three films address that invite deeper comparison.
Tokyo! is about space. Each of the films considers both physical space as well as social space. What is meant by physical space is self-evident. Social space refers to a space for people to live out their particular idea of fulfillment. You could ask, is there space for a gay man in Tokyo, meaning can such an individual fit into Tokyo society and find a satisfying path through life.
Tokyo! Questions whether there is either kind, physical or social, space left. There is a scene In Gondry’s film where a young man explains to his girlfriend that the buildings in Tokyo don’t like to touch each other. They move apart leaving narrow spaces between them. Ghosts then gather and live in those spaces. The city tries to seal up the spaces but the buildings just move over a little more. This story gets at the heart of all three films. Creating space, denying space, and the consequences of negotiating space.
In Gondry’s film, we follow a couple trying to move to Tokyo. When they arrive there is no space for them to park their car. Over the course of the film, the car gets ticketed, towed, and eventually crushed. The couple themselves stay with a friend who allows them to squeeze into her tiny apartment while they keep looking for a place of their own.
In a surprising and visually spectacular fashion, the woman in the couple transforms into a chair. Her change reflects her assessment of how she feels in her relationship with her boyfriend. She is just there as a support for her ambitious boyfriend. She is a place for him to relax and refuel. She is not a person with her own agency but a prop in his life. The chair may be an illustration of her passivity but it is also a space. It is a refuge from the day’s challenges. The couple’s struggles to find physical space is also a struggle to find a space where they belong. She loses her identity and sacrifices herself so that he will have such a space.
In Leo Carax’s film Merde, Carax borrows a character from one of his previous films. Out of the sewers, from under a manhole emerges the bizarre ogre-like man who rampaged in Carax’s film Holy Motors. He does in Tokyo just what he did in Paris. He pushes and shoves his way through the streets eating flowers and money until he disappears again into the sewer. Down in the sewer, we see Japan’s history. There is a WW2 tank and a flag of The Rising Sun. It begs the question, where is the space for Japan’s grandiose imperial past? What is to be done about the war crimes and aggression it committed? Perhaps this ogre is born of the past Japan has yet to face.
If you listen carefully when the ogre causes a loud ruckus you can hear Godzilla’s roar mixed into the sound. Godzilla is a monster born from both Japan’s past victimization by the nuclear attack it suffered, as well as its embracing of the coming nuclear age. Godzilla and the ogre are both invaders who wreak havoc in Tokyo but seem to be born from its underbelly.
The ogre finds some WW2 era grenades and then scurries happily through the streets throwing them willy nilly. He is eventually captured and put on trial. When asked why he killed innocent people, he replies “I hate innocent people.” This answer abounds with possible interpretations. He may be implying that there are no innocent people only those who pretend to be innocent. He may mean that he prefers the company of those who embrace their darker urges. He may mean that the innocent behave in such a way that is incompatible with his world view.
What is important is that his animosity toward the surface dwellers is both personal as well as social. Tokyo’s populace is the ogre’s noisy upstairs neighbors. His dark subterranean space is contaminated by their presence.
Bong Joon Ho’s contribution is entitled Shaking Tokyo and features a young man who has become a hikikomori. The hikikomori are a real phenomenon in contemporary Tokyo. They are young people who have chosen to recede away from the outside world and stay at home. They are voluntary shut-ins.
Our unnamed hikikomori avoids all human contact. Once a week he orders pizza but never looks up to see the delivery person. Then one fateful day there is an earthquake during the delivery and he ends up interacting with the young woman delivering the pizza. He falls in love with her, and later, when he finds out that she has quit her job to become a hikikomori herself, he decides to leave his seclusion and find her.
When he leaves his house he discovers that Tokyo is empty. Everyone has become a hikikomori. Tokyo has transformed. It is no longer a city. All of its public spaces are empty and what is left is a complex of mutual isolation cells. Proximity and population density no longer apply. There is no urban identity or shared experience. They may all be having a similar experience but it is not shared, there is no community.
In the 1986 comedy Crocodile Dundee, Mr. Dundee walks out of the New York City subway and sees the crowded bustling streets of the city for the first time. He surveys the masses and comments “These must be the friendliest people in the world.“ The audience is meant to initially laugh at his naivety but then realize he has a point. The city dwellers may think they are living in a rat race of chaos and danger but considering the formidable density of the population, the inhabitants have created a highly social space where people can, for the most part, live safely and in harmony. For everyone mugging, there are millions of respectful mutually beneficial interactions across the city.
Cities are spaces where each resident negotiates personal interactions to allow social exchanges with the community while simultaneously staying out of the way of others. We acknowledge each other and are in turn acknowledged by others while simultaneously making sure that we remain anonymous so as not to intrude. Cities create a continuous play between social identities and individual identities through the parsing of space into private and public. Who we are becomes a function of where we are.
It is important to mention that seeing the three films as about space is a lens used to find what the three films have in common. Each film presents themes and ideas that explore other issues. To do justice to each film the lens of commonality has to be removed so each one can be considered on its own terms and allowed to fully express its individual ideas, much like the individual inhabitants of a city.
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