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Cannes: sobriety and great excess

by James Quandt

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“Why wasn’t it in Competition?” The perennial Cannes complaint about some film or other in the market or sidebar was most frequently heard this year in regard to Kurosawa’s fine, very flawed “Tokyo Sonata,” which ended up in the Un Certain Regard. Certainly preferable to many films in Official Competition, “Tokyo Sonata” reveals Kurosawa admirably grasping for a new maturity but failing to achieve it because of traits he can’t shake. The first half suggests an update of the shomin-geki: a muted, masterfully controlled portrait of what the director calls “a very ordinary family in modern Japan,” whose hidden fissures and banked resentments lead to their disintegration. The opening sequences, in which the hitherto successful father, Sasaki Ryuhei, is replaced by a Chinese man who will work for a third of his salary, are impressively compressed. Shifting from office to home, and from nervous, hand-held camerawork to a more fixed and pristine style for the Sasakis’ apartment, “Tokyo Sonata” is no less efficient. Family relations are precisely established when eldest son Takashi returns home and snaps at his mother, Megumi, “I’m going to bed. Don’t vacuum.”

Taking a welcome break from J-horror and fantasy and courting new respect, Kurosawa is clearly uninterested in the subgenre of the Japanese satire of family life — think “Ajia no gyakusha (The Crazy Family),” “Kazoku Ge^mu (The Family Game),” or “Shitoyakana Kedamono (Elegant Beast)” — and more in the tradition of the disintegrating family as emblem of a wider societal breakdown. Developing a theme of deception, of subterranean emotion and adult life as play-acting, Kurosawa shows Ryuhei becoming one of Japan’s secretly unemployed, maintaining a fiction with his family by spending his days (in business suit and with briefcase) in parks, libraries and useless job-hunting queues. Already rigid and tightly battened, he marshals what little self- respect he has by intimidating his smiling wife (wonderfully played by Kyoko Koizumi) and his two sons. The boys rebel, the eldest by enlisting in the Self-Defense Forces and going to Iraq, the younger, Kenji, by secretly signing up for piano lessons, violently denied him by his authoritarian father.

Alas, much goes awry in the second hour. Kurosawa’s impeccable control inexplicably succumbs to overstatement, narrative overloading, schematic symbolism and sheer improbability.

French-funded but Japanese-produced, “Tokyo!” added a note of hilarity and controversy to the early days of Cannes. A three-part anthology of portraits of Tokyo by a trio of outsiders — American Michel Gondry, Frenchman Leos Carax and South Korean Joon-ho Bong — the film is the latest in the recently revived genre of the omnibus film, which collect several minifilms on a given theme by various directors. Common during the Italian and French cinema boom of the 1960s, the omnibus has inexplicably taken on new life, most recently with “Paris, Je t’aime.” “Tokyo!” couldn’t exactly be called, “Tokyo, I Hate You,” but the three aliens who look at the city see a place of diminished opportunities, circumscribed lives, of earthquakes, isolation, and rampant xenophobia. I asked the Japanese producer Yoshitake Michiko how she though the film might subsequently be received in Japan. Her long, thoughtful reply began with the premise, “How are we seen by others?” She feels that Japanese viewers might feel discomfort but will recognize that it is an outsider’s view of their country and will enjoy its humor.

Gondry, known for fey, brainy films such as “The Science of Sleep” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” turns in a surprisingly tender opening half-hour, titled “Interior Design.” A young filmmaker and his girlfriend try to find their bearings in the megalopolis, moving in with a friend while they go on a dispiriting search through Tokyo’s squalid, “reasonably priced” real estate. Gondry manages the shift from gentle observation to strange fantasy as the young, aimless woman morphs into a chair, her chest a lattice of spokes, her legs ungainly wooden appendages, as she learns to “live between the buildings with the ghosts.” Despite a harshly funny episode in which a man deadpans that his boss is a “cavity” and should have died of pneumonia, Gondry’s tale segues into sweet, sad surrealism, a soft preparation for the blast of bitterness called “Merde (Shit)” that follows.

The poisonous middle of “Tokyo!” made by middle-age bad boy Carax, “Merde” seems determined to skewer the Japanese for their every social and political foible, from the Rape of Nanjing to the cruelly capricious system of capital punishment; from mass conformity to xenophobia. Carax regular Denis Lavant, costumed as some psychotic leprechaun, with wild red hair and beard skewing sideways, deep-green suit and one bulging, milky eye, crawls out of the sewer and, in an extremely long, virtuoso take, terrorizes Tokyo streets by snatching cell phones, knocking crutches out from under people, grabbing money, etc. “Tokyo is very afraid,” intones a catatonic television news announcer after bowing deeply, and indeed it should be. The sewer-dweller indiscriminately kills by tossing leftover World War II grenades he discovers in his lair. More than a scurrying Id, he is a frightening Return of the Repressed, going so far as to criticize Japanese for living too long and for their eyes, shaped, he says, “like women’s sex. It’s disgusting.” Little wonder that Carax’s contribution was called everything from “offensive burlesque” to an “odd, angry little curio.” Carax perhaps pulls his final punch by declaring a sequel of “Merde” will be made in New York, but one can’t quite imagine the same ferocity being unleashed on Manhattanites.

After Carax’s bile, Joon-ho Bong, who knows all about creatures from the deep (see “The Host”), offers the lovely “Shaking Tokyo,” about a hikikomori (shut-in) who has not left his apartment in a decade. When a beautiful young woman delivering a pizza to him faints during an earthquake, his life of hermetic isolation is forced to an end. Elegant editing and cinematography, however, cannot disguise the need for Bong’s slow-burn aesthetic to develop this sketch into something more substantial than this “strange love story,” as the director calls it.