420) Tokyo! (2008) Dir: Joon-Ho Bong, Leos Carax and Michel Gondry Date Released: March 2009 Date Seen: November 29, 2009 Rating: 2.5/5
Though he's only onscreen for a few seconds, it's important to note YoshiYoshi Arakawa's cameo in Tokyo!, a triptych of vignettes about and/or set in the eponymous city by three foreigners. A sadly underused character actor and comedian, Arakawa gives the audience an insanely brief preview of his schtick during "Shaking Tokyo," Joon-ho Bong's contribution. Like a slacker version of Chicken Little, Arakawa comically flails his arms about and bemoans the end of the world while nobody but the camera notices him. Arakawa's walk-on performance is the highlight of Tokyo!, a brief but memorable burst of energy that the film otherwise sorely lacks. Somehow, consciously setting a story in an alien culture has robbed all three filmmakers of their innovative zeal.
Michel Gondry's "Interior Design" comes out on top because even without a particularly memorable protagonist, his short is the one that seems least like a deer caught in the global community's headlights. Holistically however Tokyo! feels uninspired and rudderless, which is saying something considering how even Paris, Je T'Aime (2006) was able to get by on its scanty charms (My theory: having so many name-checked auteurs in one place meant that any given director had to make their caricatures of the city comparatively shorter and hence sweeter). If only Tokyo!'s segments had more than a sliver of Arakawa's madcap charm.
As both Gondry and Bong's shorts are more unmemorable than they are offensive, Leos Carax's "Merde" automatically becomes the highlight of the film, which is unfortunate considering how it's the most strained of the lot. Carax tries to address how the Japanese are both seen as and actively allow themselves to be identified as a nation ruled by fetishes and subcultures, with a bitter sense of humor, one should note. The only thing "Merde" proves however is that it's impossible not to overthink things when you're addressing the very nature of cross-cultural exchange. "Merde" unleashes a deformed, sewer-dwelling troll (Denis Lavant) on the streets of Tokyo, leaving him to terrorize the gentry in his own small way. He makes a big splash not just because he eventually murders and maims couple of people but because he's a xenophobic foreign monster and hence an "other" amongst "others" ("You should know, in Japan, we don't really like racist foreigners" says the prosecutor once he's captured and tried for his crimes).
Lavant's troglodite is not however meant to be seen as just a figment of Carax's lopsidedly conservative representation of Japan. He's also a self-fashioned miscreant whose Godzilla-like identity is a response to the natives' irrational fear of outsiders ("My mother was a saint! And you raped her! And I am your son!" he bellows defensively in one of his more lucid moments). He's giving back the venom the Japanese unwittingly suppressed in the first place, making responsibility a relative concept.
Carax spends so much time expounding and unpacking this simplistic philosophy that he ignores the fact that it doesn't not making much sense. He ignores a critical step in the cycle of cultural representation: the gate-keeping middle men that perpetuate the image of Japan as uniquely quirky and strange. In that sense, he representatively ignores what makes Japan's overlapping jumble of subcultures so fascinating: they're more self-compartmentalized and hence more self-aware than most other country's constituent peoples. If the finished product is any indication, why that is remains a mystery that Tokyo!'s multiculti architects can't begin to fathom.