Tokyo! is a movie triptych—three short films, all set in Tokyo (though, interestingly, none of the films are by a Japanese director; two are by French directors and one is by a Korean director). They all have fanciful, unrealistic, in some cases blatantly surreal, elements to them.
The first entry is Interior Design. A young couple has come to Tokyo to screen the boyfriend’s low budget, indie film (a comically postmodern, symbolic sort of thing). They are staying with an old school chum of the girlfriend, but cannot realistically do so for very long, as her apartment is one of those closet-sized places Tokyo is known for, really not big enough for one person, let alone three.
At first, everyone seems cheerful and friendly with each other, but then in addition to the growing tension over the miniscule living space, the girlfriend becomes gradually more concerned that her boyfriend is an irresponsible, egotistical artist who does not respect her as an equal and will relegate her to a secondary position in his life behind his filmmaking.
Frankly, her evidence for this is unpersuasive. She thinks he doesn’t take her seriously and doesn’t listen to her because he so often kids around and takes a light tone with her, but that seems to be more his jocular, easygoing personality than a manifestation of his not respecting her. As far as being immature or irresponsible, he doesn’t strike me as any worse than the average 22 year old or whatever he’s supposed to be. She’s equally or more apt to shoot down the apartments they look at (which really are consistently awful, for a variety of reasons), and when she pushes him to take an available job as a gift wrapper in a department store, even though he makes the point that it won’t make enough money to justify the time devoted to it, he still goes along with her wishes. He has an inflated opinion of his goofy art, it’s true, but he’s not really an asshole about it.
So I think it’s more a lack of self-esteem on her part than a matter of his implicitly putting her down. But in any case, she comes to feel disvalued and “objectified” I suppose, since she then surrealistically turns into an object.
I didn’t dislike Interior Design, but it struck me as a lightweight offering that seems to think it has more to say than it really does.
The second film is Merde. A very strange, bestial man (not Japanese looking at all) emerges from a Tokyo sewer and commences randomly harassing people as he hurries down the street. Mostly he grabs whatever they happen to be holding and tries, futilely, to eat it, though when he comes to a hot girl in a schoolgirl outfit he instead licks her (so at least he has some sense).
His escapade is more or less harmless, but people are certainly nonplussed, and in some cases rather frightened, by it, as is reported on the evening news.
The second time we see him come up from the sewer, he is armed with what seem to be some sort of mini grenades, which he tosses about randomly, killing and maiming many people.
Soon he is captured, and the murderous mystery man becomes a worldwide media sensation. He is mostly unresponsive to questioning, just occasionally muttering gibberish to go with his wild gesticulations.
A flamboyant French lawyer volunteers to represent the man, in part because, he insists, he is one of only three people in the world who understand the language the man is speaking. He flies to Japan, and does indeed succeed in communicating with the sewer dweller. The man tells him that is name is “Merde” (French for “shit”).
We see a portion of his trial, in which the prosecutor questions him, and his lawyer basically has no role except as interpreter. Asked why he kills people, the defendant (in his peculiar language, which involves constantly slapping oneself in the face and pointing to one’s mouth as one speaks) explains that he doesn’t like people, especially Japanese people, because they live too long and have eyes shaped like vaginas, and that he is only in Japan in the first place because God commanded it.
By the way, no one seems curious why this French lawyer can understand this language, who the third person is that can understand it that he alluded to, why he also behaves somewhat like the defendant (they “pray” the same, for instance), or why they bear a physical resemblance to each other. Nor is any of that ever explained, or even addressed, in the film, though obviously it’s intentional.
The trial is a big deal in Japan, with some demonstrators angrily calling for the death penalty for this foreigner who murders and then insults Japanese people, and some counter-demonstrators calling for him to be freed because they hate Japan and its people.
There is a bit of a surprise—implicitly probably supernatural—ending.
Merde put me in mind of student films. It’s not that it looks very low budget or very amateurish—I don’t mean it that way—but just the way the actors move in exaggerated ways like in a silent film and mug for the camera, the simplistic, kooky story, the way the story is clumsily moved along by having TV newspeople fill in gaps, etc.
It’s mildly interesting and amusing, but not something I’d recommend going out of one’s way to see.
The final film is Shaking Tokyo, which I found the most engaging of the three.
It’s an exploration of an intriguing subject, one I was not familiar with until curiosity about this film led me to do some follow-up reading online.
In Japan, there are hundreds of thousands—some estimates put the figure in the millions—of “hikikomori.” A hikikomori is a person who suffers from a kind of extreme social anxiety or agoraphobia. More often than not they are male, young adults, and live with their parents, but they need not be any of these three. For years, or in some cases decades, they rarely if ever leave their house. They generally live in urban areas, and are middle class or above.
So typically they live with, or at least are supported by, indulgent parents who have the financial wherewithal to take care of them. Otherwise, presumably necessity would force them out into the world to generate an income, or in the case of the very few who are so far gone that they cannot bring themselves to do that under any circumstances, they would have to be institutionalized or something since they’d have no way of paying their expenses and surviving on their own.
There are various theories about why these urban hermits are so much more prevalent in Japan than in any other country. Some speculate that it’s a kind of post-traumatic shock syndrome caused by the extreme crowding of the cities, the extreme stress of educational and occupational competition and devastating loss of face when you perceive yourself as having failed at something, and the extreme social pressure of a highly conformist nation.
In other words, different societies are structured so as to mess people up in different ways, and so their casualties suffer from different mental illnesses, with this tendency to drive young people into a shell being common in Japan.
In Shaking Tokyo, the protagonist is a hikikomori who has hidden himself away in his apartment for ten years. Once a year, his father sends him enough money to get by, and he gets everything he needs delivered, including a pizza every Saturday. He manifests obsessive compulsive tendencies in how he neatly stacks his years’ worth of pizza boxes for no reason, and in other such eccentricities.
As it develops, the story increasingly takes on elements of fantasy, which perhaps is supposed to indicate that it’s not really happening, and that it’s all the dreams or hallucinations of someone who is mentally ill. Though from what I read of the hikikomori phenomenon, such people are not any more prone than the general population to other mental illnesses like being psychotic or delusional, so perhaps the more dreamlike aspects of the story aren’t to be interpreted as coming from the perspective of the protagonist specifically.
One day, he orders a pizza, and is startled when the delivery person turns out to be a young woman. Before he realizes what he is doing, he looks up at her face (normally he never looks anyone in the eye). He is terrified—as he would be in an encounter with any human being—and immediately infatuated.
As they are completing their brief transaction for the pizza, an earthquake strikes, and the girl faints into his apartment, which induces the kind of panic you would expect in a hikikomori. He is unable to revive her until he discovers that she has various labeled button tattoos on her body for different problems or ailments, such as “sadness” and “headache.” He finds one for “coma,” tentatively presses it, and it immediately solves her coma problem and wakes her up.
She finds his lifestyle and his oddball apartment with its hundreds of pizza boxes and such strangely fascinating and appealing. But then she must take her leave to get back to work.
He is now obsessed with her and can’t wait to see her again. The next Saturday comes, but he is startled to find not the girl with his pizza but a loud, aggressive guy, who for some reason barges into his apartment and makes himself at home. Eventually the hikikomori is able to bring himself to ask about the girl, and the delivery guy tells him she quit and apparently is living as a hikikomori herself now.
Somehow he finds the will to force himself out of his home to seek her out. Other than a robot, there is no one on the streets, which presumably is how he would prefer it, but he is uncomfortable in the eerie desolation. He catches glimpses of people inside some of the places he passes, and infers that hikikomori has become such an epidemic that almost everyone suffers from it now and doesn’t stray from their home.
He tries to rouse people—especially the girl, whom he eventually locates—to come outdoors, to not be afraid to live their lives. Up until now (he is the narrator of the film) he has presented his hikikomori lifestyle more favorably than not, but the shock of seeing so many people living as he does has apparently shaken him up to where he can see just what a waste it is, so he frantically warns people not to allow themselves to get trapped as he has.
Maybe this one spoke to me because, although I’m nowhere near reclusive enough to qualify as a hikikomori, I recognize in myself some tendencies in that direction. I have a certain low level social anxiety, I live by myself, I spend more time alone than I should, I spend far more time on the computer than I should, and I’m not particularly active in seeking and sustaining relationships—it’s not so much that I have an aversion to them as that I feel a certain apathy and generally don’t bother to make the effort.
On the other hand, I leave the house probably an average of six out of seven days a week, I interact with people a decent amount and rarely find those interactions more than slightly uncomfortable, and I have a respectable number of friends.
I have my little eccentricities and such—which are much easier to indulge in when you live alone and generally operate as a free agent rather than as part of a team—though not to anything like the extreme the protagonist of this film does.
But I suppose I can imagine retreating into myself like a hikikomori, could see some slight attraction to just shutting down any social life like that, at least more than the average person probably could. So in that sense the film functions as a useful warning to me.
On the whole, none of the three stories of Tokyo! are complete duds, and none won me over in a big way. They all feel kind of light, all have fantasy or supernatural elements (which as a rule of thumb don’t appeal to me in films), and all are at least slightly interesting. It’s a middling film, for my tastes. Without Shaking Tokyo I’d probably rank it below average relative to all the movies I watch, but because I liked Shaking Tokyo the best and found it to be the most thought-provoking of the three short films by a decent margin, that maybe raises the whole collection to right around average.
That may sound like more of an unfavorable reaction than not, like I’m saying Tokyo! is mediocre, but given that I typically choose to only watch movies I expect to like, and given that, as anticipated, I do then end up liking the majority of movies I see, a movie that ranks around the middle is pretty good as far as I’m concerned.