I'm rather surprised at the limp reception this film has received in the US. Just look at those directors: Gondry won millions of fans with his inventive music videos and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Carax has more of a cult following, thanks to his extravagant features Lovers on the Bridge and Pola X. And Bong made a big splash a couple of years back with his excellent monster movie The Host. Yet Tokyo! seems to be breezing in and out of theaters with barely a mention.
Maybe it's because so-called "omnibus movies" such as this, or Paris, je t'aime, or New York Stories, in which numerous directors contribute short films about one particular city, are never hip to like. And I agree that feature film directors are often not that adept at delivering shorts. But it works in Tokyo!, perhaps because the film's Japanese producers hired outsiders - two directors from France and one from South Korea - to take a surreal, critical look at their country's capital. You won't find any of the romanticism or big stars from Paris, je t'aime here. Still, there's usually an imbalance in an omnibus film, because one short stands out so well that it makes the other shorts feel disappointing and dull. But Tokyo! is solid throughout.
The first segment is typical whimsy from Gondry about a young woman and her filmmaker boyfriend who move to Tokyo from elsewhere in Japan, looking for jobs and a place to live. It takes a surreal twist towards the end, but feels rather slight. (Then again, I think every film Gondry makes feels rather slight.) There's also something vaguely Western about the characters and their behavior, which makes sense when you realize that it's based on a graphic novel set in New York by Gabrielle Bell. However, it's enjoyable enough, buoyed by the very appealing Ayako Fujitani in the lead. (She's Steven Seagal's half-Japanese daughter, but thankfully she has inherited neither her father's looks nor his acting ability.)
Carax's segment, entitled Merde, is a fantastically insane tale of a demented, leprechaun-like man (Carax regular Denis Lavant) who crawls out of the sewer to single-handedly wreak havoc on Tokyo. It's an amazing bit of cinema, completely strange and multi-layered and original, a welcome return for this reclusive filmmaker.
Tokyo! ends with Bong's quiet yet unnerving look at a hikikomori, a man who, like many contemporary Japanese urbanites, has withdrawn from society and hasn't left his house for years. But in fact all three of these stories touch on distinctly Tokyoesque themes of isolation, claustrophobia, and science fiction. I was impressed with the entire film and recommend it wholeheartedly, especially to those who don't mind their movies on the strange side.