Sunday, July 31, 2011


(originally published in The Outreach Connection in December 2009)

We were lucky enough to spend two weeks in Japan last year, divided between Tokyo, Kyoto and Hiroshima. It’s one of the best trips we’ve ever taken, and as with all travel, if you’re a movie watcher, it keeps on giving because I always imagine now I understand Japanese cinema a little better because of it. This is, of course, a crazy, self-aggrandizing delusion. Two weeks in Japan is enough time to start mapping the cultural differences and (from our perspective) oddities, but hardly to start resolving them. It’s a country with a remarkably distinctive set of codes and traces, from the manga comics to the pachinko bars to the bowing. If you focus on the temples and the other “spiritual aspects,” it’s easy to filter the whole thing through a reductive mystical prism, but that doesn’t get you anywhere on understanding a city as tireless and ambitious as Tokyo. Sometimes the homogeneity and order put me in mind of Invasion of the Body Snatchers; sometimes I felt I’d have a more refined life there than anywhere else in the world.

Grappling With Japan

We didn’t see though, except around the edges, the famously brutal plight of the salaryman, stuck in a murderous commute and accompanying grind, and obviously we weren’t there to do economic analysis. But once you read up on that, it’s easy to regard Tokyo in particular as a fatiguing collective project in merely postponing the all-time mother of great reckonings. There’s been much talk lately of Japan’s financial “lost decade” and how their circumstances differ, or don’t, from ours; certainly they have an awful fiscal situation and awful demographics. In Kyoto, you overwhelmingly feel something enduring, but that’s the reductive mysticism again, tempered when you learn how close the US came to choosing it, rather than Hiroshima, as its first target.

Hiroshima itself is one of the sadder places I’ve been to, not just because of what it represents, but because it seems dated and under-visited, its possibility as a site of stunning moral authority shockingly slipping away. In a way that’s a sign of human renewal and pragmatism I suppose, that we can almost forget something so terrible, but aren’t we way past the point when our so-called optimism (to the extent it manifests itself through consumption and debt and privileging the ephemeral over any kind of sustainable, knowledge-based collective purpose) is more a burden than a facilitator?

Anyway, Japan has always been one of the most joyous sources of meaningful cinema. I’ve written about Ozu before. Mizoguchi’s work is equally as rich. Akira Kurosawa directly influenced American films from The Magnificent Seven to Star Wars. The country won another best foreign film Oscar this year with Departures (although it may be that no one outside the small voting group actually agrees with that decision). Coincidentally, within a few weeks earlier this year, three Toronto releases cited Tokyo in their titles: Adrift In Tokyo, Tokyo Sonata and, simply, Tokyo! The first is a pleasant trifle. The second, by Kiyoshi Kurosawa, was one of my favourites this year, and would be worth a whole article to itself.

Gondry Caraxbong

The third, now out on DVD, is one of those wacky projects that tend to end up at the margins of film history – a collection of three short films by Michel Gondry (Everlasting Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). Bong Joon-ho (The Host) and Leos Carax, who seemed to have a good thing going in France twenty years ago, but hadn’t been heard of since 1999. (When it played here at the Royal cinema with its charming old-fashioned marquee, untutored passers-by might have been forgiven for assuming the film starred someone called Gondry Caraxbong, who certainly sounds like he has a future in B-movies).

Carax’s effort seemed to me some way behind the other two. Titled Merde!, it’s the rough-edged tale of a strange sewer-dwelling individual who causes panic when he enters the light. Carax seems to think this creation has significant pop-culture potential (the chapter closes with a promise of further adventures in New York), and it does have a dogged consistency of vision, but it’s pretty much entry-level satire at best.

I’m highly recommending the film’s other two episodes though. Gondry’s Interior Design works beautifully in painting Tokyo as a repository of mad dreams and possibilities pushing against the potentially crushing logistics of everyday existence; a newly-arrived would-be filmmaker (of apparent limited talent) and his more grounded but aimless girlfriend crash in a friend’s tiny apartment while looking for their own place and trying to get on their feet. In half an hour or so, Gondry presents a very compelling cross-section of real estate, bureaucratic and other perils, intermingled with intimations of ungrasped inner and outer avenues and dimensions.

The ending (as unpredictable as anything you’ll ever see) turns round the apparent direction – the kooky would-be artist makes the grade, while the girlfriend can only remove herself from the game as we know it. It’s whimsical to say the least, but makes a key point, that this cauldron just isn’t what some of us need. Cinema, of course, has an advantage over life in its access to alternate possibilities.

Shaking Tokyo

Bong’s Shaking Tokyo, in a sense, is the thematic opposite. A man who hasn’t left his apartment in a decade, living off money from his father and avoiding all news or other indicia of the world outside, starts rethinking things when a freak earthquake causes a pizza delivery girl to go into a coma on his doorstep (useful first-aid tip - he revives her by pressing the “Coma” button painted on her leg). He eventually leaves the house in search of her, discovering things have changed during those ten years.

Bong’s premise allows him a much more serene take on things than the other two episodes, because his material is forged from the idea of people withdrawing or, when they reengage, doing so incrementally and intimately. The film suggests (literally, actually) the seismic possibilities of such connections, and of the three chapters, it’s the most grounded (relatively!). But still, it allows us no sense of how to make life in Tokyo actually work, for anyone remotely average.

Which, since we’re in Toronto, not Tokyo, is probably not an immediate concern of too many people who are likely to be reading this article. But even as we sit back and enjoy the Tokyo of Tokyo! as a creative springboard, we might worry - at least a little - about the future for a city whose best narratives require overriding the laws of nature and physics.

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