The main problem with the portmanteau film – one that often consigns them to the status of curiosity - is its inconsistency. With various directors involved, each with their own take on the subject or theme, the contributions are almost always going to be somewhat hit and miss. This leads the viewer to involuntarily compare one with the other and select their own favourite segment, but rarely feel satisfied with the project as a whole. It would also seem that, based on the law of averages, the law of diminishing returns, the complicated mathematical laws that govern overall film length and those of each short segment, Murphy’s Law and various other less definable equations, that the more contributions there are in a portmanteau film, the more likely it is that the bad will outweigh the good. This hasn’t deterred such recent multi-stranded films as Ten Minutes Older, 8 and Paris je t’aime, nor has it prevented the projects from yielding some interesting results that certainly make the whole enterprise more than worthwhile (and in the case of Victor Erice’s contribution to the Ten Minutes Older, capable even of turning up a small masterpiece).
Fitting in with the popular city theme of Paris je t’aime (soon to be followed with I Love NY) that is a perennial favourite of this format – Paris vu par... and New York Stories also come to mind – Tokyo! has a couple of advantages that few of the other films have. For a start, there are only three directors – which, judging from New York Stories, Eros and Tickets would seem to be the optimal number of directors (although even there some might think that there is at least one director too many even in those films), leaving as it does a little more room for the contributors to make a more effective mark than the usual 10-minute slots can achieve. What also distinguishes Tokyo!, to my mind at least, is that it has three of the most interesting filmmakers in the world at the moment, popular directors just on the fringes of the mainstream with a unique vision and style of their own who are certainly capable of placing a very individual stamp on the material and avoiding tourist-trap visions and stereotypical characterisation that are the principal bane of portmanteau cityscape filmmaking. And when we’re talking about Tokyo, the Japanese and the danger of lapsing into a narrow Lost In Translation viewpoint, that’s something to be thankful for...
And indeed, in the case of Michel Gondry’s ‘Interior Design’, the viewpoint of the city is, not unexpectedly from this director, an outward projection of internalised issues rather than the usual travel-guide clichés of Japan. Its story is of a couple, Hiroko (Ayako Fujitani) and Akira (Ryo Kase), who come to the city and stay at the small apartment of their friend Akemi (Ayumi Ito) while Akira is exhibiting his latest small independent horror sci-fi film at a local flea-pit. There’s a sense of the two of them seeking to find their own place – quite literally in their search for an apartment – but feeling the pressures of big city life undermining their efforts, particularly affecting the self-esteem of Hiroko. Gondry expresses these issues in his usual eccentric and imaginatively entertaining fashion and his section is refreshingly free from anything that resembles a conventional depiction of the city, but there’s a sense that the story, adapted as it is from a comic originally set in New York, could refer to city living in general and not really have anything specific to say about Tokyo at all.
A little more confrontational of Japanese culture and attitudes, the enfant terrible of the 80’s French Cinéma du look, Leos Carax takes a much more irreverent view of the subject in his provocatively titled ‘Merde’ (Shit). Carax’s section features his very own monster alter-ego Denis Lavant as a creature who arises one day out of the Tokyo sewer system and starts terrorising the populace, initially in a way that affronts their sense of rightness, but later in an increasingly violent manner. Arising as he does out of the underground, Godzilla fashion, it’s not hard to see a commentary in all this on the foulness hidden beneath the surface, and the Japanese public’s unwillingness to confront its past and its own dark nature until it turns around and bites them – the Aum sect is indeed mentioned, as is Al Qaeda, all of them scapegoats for culpability of more profound failings on a national level. Just as interesting is Carax’s wonderfully irreverent approach to the subject and the demented performance of the gibberish-speaking Denis Lavant. With the promise of a “Coming Soon – Merde in New York” sequel, perhaps someone with deep pockets and faith in Leos Carax (can’t be many of those) will please give the director the funding to follow this up.
Bong Joon-ho, one of the finest Korean cinema directors of the moment with a profound sense of delving into human and national characteristics through genre films like the serial-killer thriller Memories of Murder and the sci-fi monster movie The Host, brings the same brilliance of touch to ‘Shaking Tokyo’. Taking a look at the world through the eyes of one particular Hikikomori, an extremely reclusive and unsociable individual, Bong manages to say much more about the Japanese society and attitudes in general. This man (Teruyuki Kagawa) has never ventured beyond the confines of his apartment in 11 years, maintaining a controlled environment and minimising contact with the external world to the most basic of functions – take-away delivery and payment, no eye contact, no sunlight. Perfect. One day a pizza delivery girl arrives on his doorstep at the time when an earthquake shakes the city, faints in his hallway and his life, and his view of the world, changes. The impact of this shock to the system is, you could say, earth-shattering.
Undoubtedly many will still look at the three parts of the film as individual films, compare them and pick the one they like, the one that was ok and the one they didn’t like, but through judicious choice of director and the sequencing of the running order, Tokyo! manages to overcome the problem of there often being very little connection between the individual parts of a portmanteau film or any sense of them adding to up more than the sum of their hit-or-miss parts. The variety of the directors and their unconventional and irreverent way of looking seriously at the world at least allows for a broad perspective on the city with each section supporting the other - Gondry taking a generalised view of city life, Carax a more specific look at attitudes and behaviour in Japanese society, and Bong getting right down to the mentality of the individual and applying it outward. The results then are surprisingly entertaining and effective.
Tokyo! is released in the UK by Optimum Releasing. The film is presented on a dual-layer disc, in PAL format. The disc is encoded for Region 2.
The video transfer isn’t perfect, but there can be little cause for complaint either. The Gondry and Carax sections are in 1.85:1 aspect ratio, the Bong section at 2.25:1, the transfer anamorphically enhanced. The presentation is a little on the dark side and shadow detail is not great, but the image is clear and colourful. Overall stability is good, but some minor aliasing shimmer can be detected, some low-level noise and some compression blocking artefacts. It’s possible that the image quality and bit-rate has been compromised by the inclusion of an hour-and-a-half of extra features on the same disc. It doesn’t cause great problems, and the transfer is nonetheless reasonably fine.
Two audio tracks are included – a Dolby Digital 2.0 “Stereo Feature Audio” and a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix, both strong and effective. There was a little bit of crackle in one or two sections on the rear right speaker, but I couldn’t determine whether this was related to the disc – only a checkdisc – or my speakers. There shouldn’t be anything however that causes serious problems.
English subtitles are included in a clear white font and are optional.
You can’t complain of being short-changed by the extras, which include Making Ofs for each of the films that are as long as the films themselves, however they are mostly rather a waste of time and disc space. The Making of Gondry (30:02) follows Gondry’s loose and continuous shooting style, the rehearsals done on the spot, something which the Japanese actors find very unusual. Plenty of interview clips in this one and some behind-the-scenes footage, although the secrets of the special effects remain unrevealed. There are no interviews in the Making of Carax (29:34), rather footage showing the extensive rehearsals for Merde’s two rampages through Tokyo and the actual filming. The Making of Bong (33:29) shows long sequences of multiple takes for a number of scenes. The film’s Trailer (1.29) is also included.
Well, you could still look at Tokyo!’s three films and see one so-so piece, one good one and one that is great, but even that average rates this portmanteau film somewhat higher than most. What really makes Tokyo! exceptional however is the choice of filmmakers, and in that respect, neither Michel Gondry, Leos Carax or Bong Joon-ho disappoint, each delivering a short that is worthy of their talent and managing to continue to surprise with their originality and uniqueness of vision. Optimum’s DVD release is a strong one, with a good transfer and plenty of background information in the extra features, if that’s your thing.