Tokyo!

Three vignettes demonstrate what gets lost and found in translation
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MerdePhoto from Liberation Entertainment

Easily capturing the paradoxical essence of the world's largest megalopolis seems about as likely as a phalanx of harajuku girls uniformed in Little Bo Peep costumes successfully scaling Mount Fuji. Now imagine that Bo Peep army solely consists of two Frenchmen and a Korean, and you have a sense of the heady task undertaken by the filmmakers of Tokyo!, a French production comprising a fantastical triptych of stories about the celebrated city from writer-directors Michel Gondry, Leos Carax, and Bong Joon-ho.

The first, Gondry's Interior Design tells the intimate fable of Hiroko and Akira, a spirited young Japanese couple who relocate to the big city and become confounded by its mix of vast possibility and soul-crushing suffocation. The aimless Hiroko eventually succumbs to a fate that curiously mixes urban alienation, cultural traditions of utilitarian uniformity, and the whimsical surrealism of an old-fashioned folktale. The result is a sweetly touching, delicately composed encapsulation of old- and new-guard Japanese culture.

Carax's Merde stars Denis Levant (1991's Lovers on the Bridge) as a homicidal sewer dweller — part evil clown, part C.H.U.D. — who wreaks havoc on Tokyo out of an avowed hatred for the Japanese. A half-cocked homage to Godzilla, the titular Merde (yes, that's French for "shit") represents a cartoonish outsider's view of Tokyo and its denizens. Is it a sly attack on cultural isolationism or just myopic, er, horse merde? Either way it's painful to watch.

After that unfortunate palate cleanser, Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-Ho (2006's The Host) channels Michelangelo Antonioni by way of Haruki Murakami in Shaking Tokyo, an atmospheric tale of a shut-in (or hikikomori) who is literally jolted out of his hermetic existence by a strong earthquake and a comely pizza delivery girl with an unusual set of instructional tattoos. Bong's story effectively conveys the internal turmoil caused by modern disaffection and fear (here, Tokyo itself is the monster), but it would have been nice to see a story that explores the city's teeming life in all its richness, vigor, and eccentricity instead of envisioning what it would be like without it. Seriously, where's a harajuku girl when you need one?

TOKYO! opens Fri/20 in Bay Area theaters.

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