Does anyone remember Japan? The tri-part Tokyo! revisits the Land of the Lost Decade—or at least its largest city—courtesy of tourist filmmakers Michel Gondry and Leos Carax, plus South Korean neighbor Bong Joon-Ho. Mutants abound as each episode trips the light fantastic. Gondry’s opening “Interior Design” is a vaguely Jarmuschian hipster entertainment about an aspiring filmmaker and his slacker girlfriend, who arrive in Tokyo and immediately succumb to the inexplicable hassles of metropolitan life—with the girlfriend making the more radical adaptation.
“Interior Design” evokes Gondry’s pet distinction between animate and inanimate in Japanese terms; “Merde,” the first Carax film of the 21st century, is a more confrontational riff on the most celebrated of Japanese monsters. Carax regular Denis Lavant emerges from a Tokyo manhole—barefoot and green-clad, with one milky eye and a crooked red beard—and, accompanied by a pastiche of Akira Ifukube’s Gojira score, staggers through the garish yet orderly Ginza, grabbing, eating, smoking, and licking, alarming pedestrians (when they’re not documenting his antics on their cell phones). Dubbed the “Creature From the Sewer” by deadpan newsreaders who link him to al-Qaeda, Aum Shinrikyo, and Siberian witchcraft, this chaotic eruption is shown to embody Japan’s historical repressed as well as Europe’s guilty conscience. The creature discovers a subterranean memorial to the Heroes of Nanking and launches an even more destructive attack; captured and put on trial, he’s defended by a French lawyer with a matching milky eye who translates the creature’s squeaky-voice nattering about his god.
As much a form of performance art as a movie, “Merde” offers the funniest urban rampage since Bong’s The Host. Bong’s own “Shaking Tokyo” is a quieter monster movie that addresses hikikomori, a specifically Japanese form of agoraphobia in which a young person retreats into his or her room, sometimes for years. A love story (possibly involving a robot), it’s the anthology’s least flashy filmmaking, but the truest to its location—lugubrious, a bit sentimental, and hopeful that Japan will again emerge from its shell.