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Tokyo!'s Urban Anxiety

The new movie Tokyo!—a triptych of short films directed by Michel Gondry, Leos Carax and Bong Joon-Ho—presents three increasingly neurotic architectural visions of the teeming, peripatetic megalopolis.

Hiroko and Akira from Michel Gondry's Interior Design.
Hiroko and Akira from Michel Gondry's Interior Design.

The trio opens with Interior Design directed by Gondry, whose other forays into post-modern whimsy include Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Science of Sleep. This short film focuses on a young couple (Hiroko and Akira) trying to find an apartment in Tokyo while quickly overstaying their welcome in the miniscule apartment of Hiroko’s childhood friend. Gondry plays the cramped space for light comedy, but it’s what lies outside of the tiny apartment—narrow streets and dazzling towers—where the film picks up.

Akira, an ambitious filmmaker with a penchant for making up stories on the fly, imagines a tale about the flat ghosts who inhabit the narrow spaces between Toyko’s buildings while he and Hiroko walk around the city. This flight of fancy will become the film’s center of gravity as the listless Hiroko wanders the city streets—architecture buffs will relish the brief shot of her visiting the Nakagin Capsule Tower by architect Kisho Kurokawa.

Things take a surreal, melancholy turn, as Hiroko finds herself undergoing a strange metamorphosis. As she starts to inhabit the city’s dark, interstitial spaces, she changes back and forth between human form and the shape of a wooden chair. She eventually takes up residence in the home of a solitary musician where she seemingly will live out her days as the kind of ghost Akira described—an ethereal young woman when alone, and just another object in the presence of others.

If Gondry’s architectural sensibility is rueful, Gogol-esque yet never without a sense of play, then that of Leos Carax’s Merde is blatantly sociopathic. In his film a kind demented, sewer-dwelling leprechaun named Merde emerges from the bowels of the urban landscape and terrorizes the citizens of Tokyo. Suggesting a kind of deep-seated paranoia about what might be lurking in the city’s crevices, Tokyo as an environment has had its capacity to amuse replaced with a will to harm. The ordered city streets, efficient overpasses and glistening skyscrapers have given birth to a feral citizen, one whose infractions range from the stealing and consuming of chrysanthemums to lobbing hand grenades into crowds. The city here is a kind of repository of victims, an urban jungle on which the quasi-human Merde is all too happy to feast.

Bong Joon-Ho’s Shaking Tokyo is the least successful of the three, though the film’s protagonist, a recluse who has not been out of his house in 11 years, is a kind of packrat modernist’s dream. A visually witty departure from the confining apartments of Interior Design, pizza boxes from a decade of delivery make formally perfect columns alongside precise stacks of books and regimented rolls of toilet paper. This is modern interior design as applied to a hiding place, a bunker, a home whose sole function has become the storage and sustaining of a single man.

Of course our protagonist does eventually leave his house in search of a pizza delivery girl with whom he falls in love in the aftermath of an earthquake. Instead of facing what he fears will be the madness of the city he’s avoided for 11 years, he finds a dystopic vision of his own neuroses . The earthquake has caused all of Tokyo to retreat to their houses, turning the pulsing city into a post-human, post-public wasteland. Buildings now serve only to house citizens, massive concrete prisons guarded by a collective psychosis. The design that once served to facilitate the movements of society now encapsulates it, leaving parks, apartment blocks and office buildings to be covered over in vines like the house of the nameless protagonist. 

Each of the three films shows a kind of fascination and horror with city life, and though the visions of Tokyo grow increasingly bleak, from oddly playful to homicidal to ultimately agoraphobic, they each treat architecture as an accomplice. Urban anxiety gives way to surrealistic nightmares, as Gondry, Carax and Joon-Ho record a people, and a landscape, coming slowly unhinged.
 

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