Thursday, August 13, 2009

Surreal Japan – Lost in Translation

Hikikomori - a Japanese term to refer to the phenomenon of reclusive individuals who have chosen to withdraw from social life, often seeking extreme degrees of isolation and confinement because of various personal and social factors in their lives.

Well I’m down for this! I love to learn about social phenoms and in the film “Tokyo!” which presents three short films (about 35 minutes each) we have this lifestyle dramatized in the final sequence "Shaking Tokyo," directed by Korean director Joon-ho Bong (“The Host”). Similar in style to 2006’s “Paris, je t'aime”, this time all three films are by foreign directors again using the titled city as a setting.

The first segment is “Interior Design,” by Michel Gondry who gave us the great “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and the poor “The Science of Sleep” and “Be Kind, Rewind” (Though Jessi and I disagreed on that one). I really enjoyed this tale in the offbeat style of Jim Jarmusch. A quirky indie director and his supportive girlfriend crash at her friends’ apartment in Tokyo in attempt to get his film shown and to become established there. They look at dirty potential apartments and try to find work as their host becomes increasingly annoyed since her apartment literally gets smaller as the film goes on. Once her filmmaker beau begins to get some recognition, the girlfriend is sidelined and must find a new purpose in her life possibly supporting another artist, this time a musician. Wonderful and bizarre!

The next segment “Merde” by director Leos Carax then destroys the charm by introducing an overacting Caucasian male playing a childlike “monster” who lives in the sewers and terrorizes the city. This film was so horrible I had to fast-forward through it. It is pretentious, boring and I swear unwatchable which means it will be hailed by critics as a masterpiece.

The final triptych “Shaking Tokyo”, as I noted at the start, returns to the offbeat tone of the opening segment, presenting an isolated man living off his fathers’ kindness (mailed cash) who has chosen not to leave his apartment in 11 years. The shots outside of an empty Tokyo are quite remarkable as everyone else appears to have chosen to do the same. I thought this was a very creative take on the isolation of a mega-city and YĆ» Aoi as the cute delivery woman who literally displays her emotions is great. Yet this story’s pace is way slow and in the end the structure is weak. So the cumulative effect of the film “Tokyo” is one of exhaustion and frustration due to its' uneven nature, a common problem with these kinds of anthology films. I think “New York Stories” started this trilogy and trend twenty years ago since I remember that Coppola’s segment really bit. My rating therefore is based on the segments and the overall effect; the salt here would be four shakers, one shaker and three shakers which gives us a two shaker overall.

In a full length film which actually would be better off it were a shorter entry in the above is Hitoshi Matsumoto’s “Big Man Japan” This one features some wonderfully freaky fight scenes between the title character (A beefy giant in his briefs carrying a big stick) and bizarre monsters that have to be seen to be believed. Unfortunately these absurdist scenes are interspersed in a mockumentary about the hero who spends most of his time as a normal-sized man looking sullen and bored. There are some clever ideas about how the glory days of his giant ancestors are gone as modern Tokyo holds him accountable more for the wreckage he causes than for his heroism in his frequent battles to protect its’ citizens. He must now rely on selling his giant body as a corporate billboard and deal with a condescending agent and an estranged daughter. Yet these sections just drag on and any potential humor gets lost in the tedious direction. Then the ending just drives the stake through this films’ heart as it dramatically changes style and tone further alienating the frustrated viewer. Like the giant himself, the director doesn’t know when to let up and move on.