Q & A by Brad Balfour
As if it were a creative corollary to the act of cinematic deconstruction, this strange tri-parted feature, Tokyo!, was released on the same weekend as Watchmen--a film based on a huge graphic novel that's all about deconstruction. This strange absurdist-cartoon interpretation of the ultimate urban megopolis, Tokyo! takes on the town and the idea of a modern, functioning city through the eyes of three foreigners: two Frenchmen, Michel Gondry (Interior Design) and Leos Carax (Merde), and the South Korean born-and-bred Bong Joon-Ho (Shaking Tokyo).
It was an odd yet funny move that this film's Japanese producers, Masa Sawada and Michiko Yoshitake, chose three foreigners from two distinctly different countries: the idiosyncratic filmmakers Gondry, who of course established himself through such strange narratives as Re Kind Rewind; Carax who was acclaimed for The Lovers on the Bridge and Pola X only to disappear for a decade; and Bong, who made a though-provoking horror film, The Host, before this.
Through this triptych, each director deals with alienation within this near-futuristic city, but offers distinctly different takes and conclusions. In Interior Design, a couple moves to Tokyo to confront the big city but as they sink into the mire, each one becomes alienated in very different ways. A shambling human monster in the form of a homeless wreck goes on a rampage in Merde; he is subsequently captured and put on trial. In Shaking Tokyo an agoraphobic (known as a hikikomori in Japan) rescues a pizza delivery girl during an earthquake and falls in love with her.
As peculiar a film as this is, it was fortunate that at least the two French directors came to New York to discuss their work with a few writers, in whatever cryptic and perplexing Gallic inflected terms they could muster.
Q: Is this film a deconstruction of Tokyo--what was your goal in analyzing Tokyo through cinema?
MG: I think the duration of each segment sort of pushed us to create something surprising, because you just have 30 minutes, and it leads you to [do] something abnormal. I don’t know how it is for everybody else, because we didn’t speak to each other, and we didn’t know what subjects [the other filmmakers] were treating, but I think this duration pushes you to bring [in] more unexpected elements.
There is a feeling of [the] monster in Tokyo. Gabrielle [Bell, co-writer and author of the source material, a story from her graphic novel collection], and I were reading some [Haruki] Murakami and Edogawa Rampo, and I remember the Murakami story was about a giant frog who has to fight a giant snake. It’s a very good one! And there’s actually this [Edogawa Rampo] story of this guy in a chair. Pretty creepy!
Q: Leos, did you feel the same way about the effect the shorter duration had on your approach to the segment you made?
LC: With a project called “Tokyo!,” or “Paris,” or “New York,” it’s very superficial. You’re in the position of a foreigner, and we’re three foreigners, it’s us vs. Tokyo, so it was a superficial position. So I of course tried for [Merde, the sewer monster] to be the “ultimate foreigner.”
I imagined he would be like a child from some lost civilization, with his own religion--a fundamentalist, terrorist child--and to use the pop culture of the monster in the city.
Q: Was Merde’s milky eye an homage to Henri-Georges Clouzot's 1955 film Les Diaboliques?
LC: No. I don’t do homage [laughs].
Q: After he rampages through the city and then is captured, Merde talks about how he was born of the people in the trial sequence; he’s their son, and they raped his mother. Was this a social comment on how the west is breeding terrorists?
LC: It’s a bit ridiculous, the psychology inside these monster films! It’s not very serious, and not some [huge] statement. I mean monsters are always a product of the system, but it’s not meant to be [a cultural criticism].
Q: When you take us down into the monster’s cave, there are objects there that seem to be a reckoning with or at least, an acknowledgement of the past--with accoutrements reminiscent of Nanking. Was this intentional--is this monster, this "character from the Id" let loose on the street, a reckoning of the past?
LC: When I say I could’ve made the film in any other city, it’s true, but since it was Tokyo, I used elements from the sewers to get at their past. That’s why I used Nanking, because it’s their big trauma. But it’s a very clichéd thing to have the monster use whatever the civilization has produced against it, whether it be [something] nuclear with Godzilla, or here, it’s grenades from Nanking that the monster’s going to use against today’s Japanese. It’s a monster movie, and it’s about the ultimate foreigner coming out of the sewers and killing everyone on the streets.
Q: Michel, did you take some trip to Tokyo that left a lasting impression on you--is that what inspired you to make your segment?
MG: Oh yeah! We all went to each other, “Let’s go make a movie about Tokyo!” No, the producers just called us.
Q: Did you coordinate with each other on the three themes of these films?
MG: I tried to, but this guy [gesturing to Carax] didn’t want to!
Q: Did you know each other before?
MG: Yeah, we met once before.
LC: There were three films, but none of us knew what the others were doing.
Q: Leos, you’ve had two long absences from filmmaking in your career, from 1991’s The Lovers on the Bridge to 1999’s Pola X, and between that film to now with Tokyo! What were the reasons for these long gaps in your resume?
LC: [Shrugs] No particular reason… I just didn’t get to make the films I wanted to. This was an opportunity to make something....
MG: It was a great offer that I experienced with this movie. The main constraint [in getting films made] is to get a famous actor to finance the film--especially in America. We didn’t have to do that [here] because it was a third of the film, and the producer was not there to say, “No, you can’t do that!”
Ryo Kase [who starred in Letters from Iwo Jima] is pretty famous, but Ayako is not. It was good that we didn’t know [who] anyone [was], because we chose them for the right reasons.
Q: You did cast Ayako Fujitani, Steven Seagal’s daughter, in your segment Interior Design.
MG: I love Steven Seagal so much! No… [laughs]. After the shooting, I did a documentary on Ayako and we met her father and put them together, and it was pretty crazy.
Actually, he’s a cop. In Louisiana, he has a radio, and if he hears about a murder--a rape or a murder--he goes and takes the bad guy out! Just imagine: you’re a bad guy, and you get caught by the police, and it’s fucking Steven Seagal arresting you with his gun! [Laughs]
He’s like that, and he wanted his daughter to be a cop too. He thought it would be safe for her, but she was like, “Dad, how is it safe to be a cop?” He had a very weird logic…
But anyway, we picked her because she sort of reminded Gabrielle of the original character she wrote the story about. We didn’t know she was half American at the time. We believed she was Japanese and could speak really good English, and she responded very well to the sensibility of the story--probably due to the fact that she’s half American--but we didn’t know that at the time.
Q: A lot of your films explore the psychological toll that relationships have on people, whether it be “The Science of Sleep,” “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” or this segment “Interior Design.” Why are you so attracted to exploring this theme in your films?
MG: Well, I spend a lot of time trying to figure out what’s wrong with me in this matter, and when it comes to doing a movie I’m naturally inclined to keep this reflection going.
I would have a hard time to do a movie about a restaurant; to be invited in a good or bad restaurant doesn’t really speak to me. Or, a movie on Wall Street--although that’s come to be in my interest seeing the situation [now]. But, it seems to be more naturally… how I use my brain, by deviance or obsession or whatever, so it’s easier for me to think about that than other subjects.
Q: Many of your films have that "theatre of the absurd" aspect to them, and you have a knack for casting comedic actors in many of your films--what is the role of comedy in your films?
MG: Well, I think it’s measure is a little in-between. Like if I go to a video store, I don’t know where I’m going to look for my movies. Like Eternal Sunshine--sometimes it’s in [the] comedy [section], sometimes it’s in drama, and it’s always problematic. A lot of directors come from [music videos] like me, with slick visuals and fashionable attitude which I don’t really like, so I have more of this comedic element.
As for the casting, I draw more on how I think they’re going to express their comedy. But on the other hand, I got an actor as [well known as] Jim Carrey [he starred in Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind] who wanted to become dramatically believable, so you get an actor who’s going to take a chance on you [in place of] an actor you [can] afford. Everybody wants to be Tom Hanks, and Jim Carrey has this obsession--he made this bitter comment how he’s always nominated for the Golden Globe but never for the Oscar--he’s having a huge career, yet he still feels a lack of recognition, so [he's one of] those actors are really drawn into taking chances.
Q: This is a country with a high suicide rate, yet there is this drive to be capitalistic conformists; did this play out in your film?
MG: One thing that was a little problem to deal with is the idea that the chair is not a traditional furniture in Japan, it’s more recent, but once we visited Japan, we saw people do have dinner with chairs, so it was ok. A lot of the time, there’s still this idea to sit around a small table and sit on your knees, but the chair existed.
The idea you’re referring to, to suicide--I think there’s something about self-erasing in Japan, like the idea of a woman wearing the bandage to make her feet smaller, and I think that reflects that idea pretty well. The original story written by Gabrielle was about a couple in New York, but there are elements in Japanese culture which actually accentuates and gives meaning to this transformation that were maybe not so obvious in New York.
Q: What did you feel about the sense of alienation in Japanese society?
MG: Honestly, when I go to a country like Japan, which seems very foreign [to me], I try to look for the resemblances more than the differences, and it takes a while to see that--it takes the same time as it does to make friends. For instance, you don’t really choose your friends--you see what’s inside them, and then you can identify the same motivations, the same problems; there are similarities inside them to what is inside you, so I look more for that.
Though the original story was happening in New York as I said, but with Tokyo [the feeling] was even stronger. I could talk about what I find very specific in Tokyo… It’s a very fluid and quiet city at the same time--very energetic yet quiet--because people are not so expressive [as in the States]. When I went back to America after spending a few months in Tokyo, I found people were walking like [they were galloping] horses!
Q: In your segment, the girl transforms back and forth from being a chair; it seems obvious that you were influenced by the Surrealist movement...
MG: This is how my influences work, if there is any: I have a dream, and then I put it in a movie because I think that’s my dream, and then I realize my dream was influenced by whoever, and [then] I feel I’m stealing! But because it’s been digested by my dream, I feel legitimate in using it.
It’s not always like that… I remember having a conversation with Charlie Kaufman [who wrote Eternal Sunshine...] about breaking into an ex-girlfriend’s apartment--actually I did it in my life--it was pretty creepy! And then I put it in a movie, so was I stealing the idea from Charlie? But I lived it! But I lived it maybe because Charlie and I talked about it. See, it’s hard for me, you never know. I try to invite influences, but I prefer to watch movies and get stimulated.
It’s very dangerous to claim yourself to be a surrealist, because there is something about the quality of dreams that you can’t pinpoint--it vanishes. I think that a lot of directors, in my opinion, who are visually surrealist, are anything but. All the visuals in advertising… There are some directors, I won’t mention them now, but they take so much from the surface of surrealism.
I know the guy who did the costumes for “Ivan the Terrible,” and it was just after World War II, and they had no money. It was in black & white, and to do the earring of Ivan, they took some chestnut shells, covered them in tin foil, and put them on the ear, and it looked amazing! When I hear with “Titanic” that they went all the way to China to get the plates…
A lot of people working in advertising just take the surface, and I don’t think it has anything to do with surrealism. There are qualities in the surrealist films that are very handmade and put together, cause it leaves gaps for the brain to fill.
Q: Leos, would you consider yourself a surrealist?
LC: No. I don’t know much about surrealism…