‘Rendered In Film, Tokyo Forms an Unhinged and Unliveable Space.’ (Stephen Barber). Is This an Accurate Definition of Tokyo in Relation to Tokyo!, Lost in Translation and Tokyo Love Hello.

None of the Tokyo! writer-directors is Japanese, yet Michel Gondry, Leos Carax and Bong Joon-Ho all make different uses of Tokyo locations and play on themes common in Japanese film: transformation, disconnection, the approaching amalgamation of humanity and technology and the emergence of buried historical traumas and the fear of ‘the other’ in the three short films Interior design, Merde and Shaking Tokyo. Tokyo Love Hello on the other hand records British photographer Chris Steele-Perkins’s personal reflections on Tokyo as an urban space in a series of photographs that form a travelogue. It depicts Steele-Perkins’s ‘tourist on the street’s’ view of Tokyo as a tableau of sensory overload and a Westerner’s reaction to the familiar and the unfamiliar. The travelogue also poses implicit questions about Tokyo as both belonging to the East but having an almost charactured Western style and mindset, his reaction to such an alien environment defines the film through a culturally and racially subjective view. Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation however, focuses more on the emotional disconnection of fellow Americans Bob and Charlotte, who struggle to find purpose and meaning in the vacuous and chaotic world of Tokyo. Although we are kept aware of the claustrophobic feel of the city, we are also kept aware of Tokyo as a new physical and emotional space for Charlotte and Bob to explore and discover themselves in. They come to define themselves in relation to the experiences the city gives them and through their intimacy whilst maintaining romantic rather than sexual comradeship, which stands in clear contrast to the over sexualized and disconnected relationships of men and women in Coppola’s Tokyo.

Chris Steele-Perkins’s Tokyo Love Hello is a seven and half-minute travelogue conducted through a series of images interspersed with sound bites, music and narration. The sound bites of the everyday noises of Tokyo are all in fact non-diegetic as Steele-Perkins recorded the travelogue through a photographic medium that allows the sharper contrast of noises which are usually diegetic, such as traffic, snippets of conversation and public service announcements, they create a feeling of immediacy and normality that we can identify as part of living in any city. The public announcements particularly at the start and end of the film are important as they book-end the travelogue making it appear as if the series of pictures were taken from the inside of the bus, this is reinforced by the repetition of the reflected picture of Steele-Perkins taking a picture in the rear-view mirror on the bus, creating a symmetrical sequence reminiscent of the reverse sequence when ending a holiday. The feature in Steele-Perkins’s own words is “about being there, of my own experience”, his sensory journey through Tokyo aims to immerse the viewer in the culture of the city which, as he says in his elliptical narration, “[Is] a strange fanstatic place, a bit like a parallel universe” This suggests that for him, Tokyo is no less habitable than London, Paris or LA but also shows that he percieves an unfamiliarity in the familiar of his surroundings, “One of the things I find about Japan which intrigues me, is that you sort of recognise everything and think you know what’s going on but you don’t quite”. The pictures he uses to show his personal experience of Tokyo are of the unstudied Tokyo citizen yawning, the traditional Japanese wedding, the futuristic classroom full of students wearing storm-trooper helmets. The abstract and the bizarre in a fusion of unexplained images in which Steele-Perkins uses different levels of focus of the images to examine the randomness which melds both the abstract nature of Tokyo, through Steele-Perkins’s eyes, and the abstract experience of the tourist. By not explaining the pictures and using photos with a strong theme of reflection in surfaces as well as abstract music, Steele-Perkins wants us to reflect on Tokyo Love Hello’s presentation as a parrallel culture that embodies in a far-more varied form than Western cities the inclusion in the everyday of the traditional custom alongside the futuristic. By this presentation it is certainly “unhinged” if we define that word as ‘unbalanced’. As an “unliveable space” Barber’s theory falls down as the pictures show Tokyo as a city which contains a chaotic mixture of the past, the present and the futuristic just as many cities all over the world do, both in film and reality. On the contrary Tokyo is far from “unliveable”, it is a vibrant metropolis in which many different social groups function in apparent harmony.

However in the presentation of three short films in the collection, Tokyo! directed by Joon-ho Bong, Leos Carax and Michel Gondry, Tokyo is rendered as a place where social and physical metamorphosis can take place insidiously amongst its citizens and mutants can appear suddenly to attack the city and Japanese culture. This can be seen as a metaphorical embodiment of the feared Western outsider as well as the return of repressed historical traumas of the post-WWII period.
The first short film of the collection Interior Design directed by Michel Gondry, is similar to Lost in Translation in that the narrative is primarlily focused on the assimilation of a man and a woman newly arrived in Tokyo and their awareness and active evaluation of themselves in contrast to the urban centre around them. Both Charlotte and Hiroko are in similar positions in that they are both there to support their partners in their work which involves capturing images, both are lost because they feel they have no purpose in a city where everyone is there to make money and succeed. These two women are both spiritually lost in disconnected relationships and are spatially rootless in foreign surroundings, as the narrative is largely from their point of view this loneliness is projected onto Tokyo as an unwelcoming urban area, Hiroko says “I don’t think I know what I’m doing…in general” and when Bob asks Charlotte what she does she replies, “I’m not sure yet, actually”.
Psychological and literal transformation and mutation are popular in Japanese narratives and appear again in the opening scene of Interior Design in which Akira tells a story about a flood of Tokyo where the survivors morph into amphibious creatures who take over the city. The idea of the transformation of the survivors foreshadows the conclusion of the film in which Hiroko becomes a chair, so that she may be of some use to others rather than as Akemi says a “problem”. As Hiroko and Akira apartment hunt, the flats become increasingly unhabitable as they become more expensive and unattainable; the first leads onto an abattoir, the second is dark, the third is tiny and a fast zoom out of the window shows it to be one of a number of washing machine-like white boxes on top of one another. The box, a symbol of confinement, is a theme recurrent throughout the film shown by the cut from the washing-machine apartment to Akira wrapping up a white box at his boring job. Gondry portrays Tokyo as an “unliveable” space as he shows that even the relatively successful young people such as Akemi get negligible living space, this is visualised by Gondry’s use of an aerial camera suspended over Akemi’s tiny boxed-in apartment where he speeds up the footage of the three characters living in the confined space to show their ant-like movements and consequently the wider over-population of Tokyo.
Tokyo is also shown to be a highly pressurized city as Gondry himself says, “I think Tokyo has this kind of energy similar to New York where if you don’t have a purpose you are put to one side” For Hiroko her eventual metamorphosis into a chair is an ironic yet for her ultimately satisfying answer to her problematic presence: her new owner demands nothing of her, she is cared for, allowed time to herself and has a purpose and a place. As far as rendering Tokyo “unhinged”, the film is realist but as in most of Gondry’s films the narrative slips into the fantastical as the characters’ imaginations are unleashed culminating in the metamorphosis of Hiroko. We can only assume this is an subconscious desire to change and escape her life which she lives largely for the benefit of others, which perhaps makes her transformation sadly ironic though according to Barber himself inevitable as “[there is] an obcession with corporeal mutation which constiutes the essential element in the the contemporary filmic iconography of Tokyo”. On a more subtle level the real imbalance of the film exists between the selfless and disinterested Hiroko and the self-centred nature of her friends and boyfriend who don’t appreciate or offer help as she struggles to belong in such an inhospitable city.

Directing Merde Leos Carax forms a Tokyo of pervasive fear, anxiety and division seen most clearly in the trial news coverage of the eponymous Merde in which cult groups and protesters are divided between ultra-nationalists and pro-Merde supporters of his acts of chaotic violence. After his killing spree, the tragedy is shown on a large screen in the centre of Tokyo, incidently this is the same screen that Charlotte sees the dinosaur come to life on as she walks through the city. Though probably unconnected it is a subtle reminder that more than any other metropolis in the world, Tokyo has a cinematic reputation as a city where the mostrous and historic monstrosities can remerge and cause destructive force. This can be seen from contemporary manga and anime to Ishiro Hondas’s 1954 monster Godzilla. Like Godzilla, Merde can be seen to represent both the destructive power of the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Minamata, as well as the tragic product of the radiation poisoning from the bombs which caused mutations in generations of Japanese. This idea of exposed cultural traumas is supported by author and critic Hideo Kobayashi, whose vision of the city of Tokyo, is that it serves ‘not as a repository for memories … but only as an ever shifting marker of disassociation from the past.’ Carax suggested that as a caucasian Merde is perhaps unconsciously re-enacting revenge for Japan’s WWII crimes, this is quite a compelling idea as on emerging from the sewers he is wearing an army jacket and starts to throw grenades remorselessly at crowds. In his trial he is openly racist and as further proof of the court’s idea of him as an pollutant Westerner he only eats money and chrysanthemums, the symbolic flower of the Japan. The idea of Merde as a distinct European threat is compounded by Barber, “The face of the city metamorphosed, bearing conflictual influence of American and increasingly European cultures-especially France- on its surfaces as well as with in its cultural undersides” Carax presents a Tokyo founded on the fantastic and the irrationally chaotic where nothing is ever explained, for instance, where Merde came from or why he only emerged when he did, what language he and his lawyer speak and ultimately in the final scene how he escapes. Tokyo in Merde is a place of bizarre appearances and disappearances where what is actually happening is constantly called into question by the viewer and past violence is present in each new assault on the city.

In Shaking Tokyo, Bong unlike the other directors, approaches Tokyo not through the iconic centre, but through the marginal space of the suburbs, this is because he focuses not on the city itself, but the people who live the marginal life of a Hikikomori. Like Lost In Translation and Interior Design, Shaking Tokyo focuses on the disconnection of the individual from the rest of society. This is achieved through the narration of an anonymous Hikikomori, which literally translates as “pulling inward”. Hikikomori is a Japanese phenomenon suspected to have begun around the 1980’s as a reaction to a range of factors including depression and pressurized expectations from family and peers, in which young adults and adolescents retreat into their homes to live often in complete isolation, remaining financially dependent on their parents. The anonymous man represents a real statistic of around one to three million Hikikomori in Tokyo alone. Like many Hikikomori he hoards objects, Joon-Ho Bong draws attention in close-up shots to the plethora of pizza boxes, toilet rolls and other objects which show his long-term lifestyle as a shut-in. The film examines the repercussions of an earthquake that causes a delivery girl to feint disrupting the Hikikomori’s carefully structured routine which forces him to interact. He wakes her by pressing a button on her leg, this is the first clue that suggests that in the ten years he has lived away from society, things have progressed to the point where man and machine have begun to merge. As a film about essential human connection, it is interesting that Bong films the first part of the film from the interior, of both the house and the Hikikomori’s mind, whilst building a sense of mystery of what is “out there”, his main character is fascinated and terrified by the external seen by his notice of the delivery girl’s pretty face and the obsessive neatness of the stacked objects. Therefore it is interesting that the only outsiders, the pizza girl and her boss, who enter his house repeat the same line, “this place is really perfect” showing a warped perception of perfection among people on the outside. The Hikikomori eventually leaves his house to learn that social withdrawal has spread like a form of contagion, society has essentially collapsed and like the buildings in Interior Design, people are repelled by each other and have all become Hikikomori. Robots now deliver the pizza to the Hikikomori and the high-angled shot of the anonymous man running across a deserted junction shows the futuristic possibilities of a world where robots are more alive than humans. The short films ends on and optimistic note with the girl and the man falling in love, it is hopeful of a gradual return through reconnection to “normality” whatever that turns out to be. Bong’s Tokyo is not a thriving metropolis but a deserted wasteland of automatons and robots, the distintion between which the characters can themselves be confused by, the delivery girl’s buttons show this merger. However Tokyo is not hopeless, the earthquakes are a powerful symbol of change and rejuvenation which presents the retreat of the Hikikomori as a reversible phase. Therefore it can be seen as a severely unbalanced urban environment but one in which it is upto the characters to decide to engage in.

As previously mentioned, Lost In Translation by Coppola shares thematic similarities with Interior Design, not merely between the two female protagonists, but in the spacial presentation of Tokyo as a place of transformation, disconnection and anxiety over one’s place within the city’s economic framework. This is revealed in the opening scenes of the film in which Bob awakens in the taxi and we the audience see a shot of the billboard of him advertising Suntory whiskey which cuts to a shot of Bob from outside the taxi with the image surrealy mirrored in the car window over his face, obscuring him. This inverts Baudelaire’s idea of the flaneur as a detached urban observer, this is truer of Charlotte’s character who spends much more time walking around the city observing, as Murphy says, “Bob’s character [who] is not as free as he might seem and is constricted by his image much as a nineteenth-century urban women might be constricted by the gaze of others” This opening shot is symbolic of Bob’s apathy about his life in which his acting identity has become his only stable identity. We later find out that he has forgotten his son’s birthday and through a series of messages his wife sends him about domestic issues, we see the same detachment towards her too. On the other hand he is equally apathetic towards his acting career and fame seen by his uncomfortable avoidance of fans as well as in his appearance on a famous Japanese chat show, where he clearly feels out-of-place as a product rather than a person. Throughout the film Bob struggles in a way Charlotte does not with the language barrier; the scene in which the Japanese director asks for “intensity” as he promotes whiskey shows clearly Bob’s confusion and frustration in a city where his inability to express himself is taken to new levels.
Charlotte feels lost because she has no function in Tokyo and searches for spiritual fulfilment from self-help tapes and visits to a Kyoto shrine. Her despondency is clearly shown in a scene with a distanced medium shot of her crying on the phone, she is talking to a friend who isn’t listening, “It’s great here…I went to a shrine today and there were these monks chanting, and I didn’t feel anything”. This is important as it encapsulates and connects her in the audience’s mind to Bob who feels a similar sense of numbness in his life.
Charlotte is there to be with her husband though their detached relationship is revealed through his workaholic schedule and frequent criticisms of her for poking-fun at the vacuous actress and her own smoking, ironically he does this whilst complaining that the “skinny, nerdy” band he is shooting is being forced to change their image for commercial gain. The representation of the place of women in Tokyo is the most complex of all the films previously discussed, as Charlotte who is adjusting to married life, is trying to define herself to a large extent as something other than her famous husband’s wife, possibly as Bob’s wife is trying to do in building a home in LA. The time away from her husband allows her to do this and by contrasting her with different female centred scenes such as the flower arranging, the strip club and the wedding procession.
The focus on Tokyo outside of the hotel is interesting as both character’s are often framed with the urban sprawl of the city clearly visible through the windows, one such scene is of Charlotte when she is sitting in the hotel room on the sill and the camera is positioned above her, it pans from her to the city and back again so that she appears to be floating above it. It could be seen as a visual metaphor of the distance she both hates and needs from her own life, so that she may find who she is without her husband. Both of the characters spend a lot of time within the hotel with its clinical decor and panoramic windows which inspires a sensation of distance and alienation, it almost feels like a spaceship or a prison disconnected from the ground below. This idea is repeated by Bob’s joking about escaping from the hotel if Charlotte will come too, “we have to get out of the bar, then the hotel and then the country, you in?”. Coppola’s Tokyo is a complex fusion of perspectives its bright lights, cleanliness and buildings are all iconic of Tokyo’s image of hyperreality and modernity and yet Coppola balances the picture with moving scenes of real beauty in both the shrine and with the paper tree that Charlotte ties some sort of prayer or wish onto. Amongst these peaceful and thoughtful scenes comes scenes of chaos for instance when Charlotte and Bob are chased out of a bar as the barman fires a laser gun at them, this fast tracking shot continues through an arcade in which teenagers are absorbed in virtual games. Yet this only adds to the sense that Bob and Charlotte’s relationship is real and their romance is one of mutual discovery, support and fun. Though their relationship is never sexualized beyond the last scene, their intimacy stems from their mutual respect of the value of one another’s “real lives”.
In Lost In Translation, Tokyo! and Tokyo Love Hello the representations of Tokyo though sometimes similar thematically, all portray very different interpretations from five different directors who come from four different countries, all with very different conceptions of what Tokyo is and this comes across very clearly in their films. Gondry’s is a city where individuals are down trodden, moulded into useful parts of a much larger capitalist machine. Bong presents a Tokyo that may one day see the silence that surrounds the issue of Hikikomori take over and become something that no one can talk about or even face if no one notices it now. Carax’s Tokyo is a child’s crazed notions of a Tokyo collected from comic books; where monsters arise from the depths of the city’s recesses to wreak destruction only to miraculously disappear until the next installment. The Tokyo of Lost In Translation is a place of meetings and partings where people lose themselves but also discover themselves, as the tag line of the movie points out, “sometimes you have to go half way around the world to come full circle”. Steele-Perkins’s Tokyo is one of a Westerner’s perspective on the sensory over-load one first experiences when stepping out onto the street, his is an ephemeral not a sociological approach. Therefore Barber’s generalisation that Tokyo “forms an unhinged and unlivable space” is a blatant over-simplification of a diverse city which can be, as we have seen, interpreted in many ways. Firstly, rendered in film Tokyo is and always will be a product of what has been before; the history of the city is most commonly known through its cinematic history which is itself a concoction of interpreted fact and fiction. Secondly in Lost In Translation, Merde and Tokyo Love Hello no one can be said to really live in Tokyo as none of the character’s really belong as they are all outsiders living on the margins as tourists in hotels, Hikikomori, sewer dwelling monsters and destitute students. Afterall what is the Tokyo term for belonging as Parisian, Londoner or New Yorker is? If there is any uniting point between the films it is that the characters are all transformed by Tokyo, therefore if we attribute LA as the city where dreams become reality, then Tokyo is the city where reality morphs into dreams or nightmares.

 

 

 

Bibliography

Barber, Stephen. Projected Cities: Cinema and Urban Space. London: Reaktion, 2002. Print.

Lost in Translation. Dir. Sofia Coppola. Perf. Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson. 2003. DVD.
Murphy, Amy. “Traces Of The Flaneuse: From Roman Holiday To Lost In Translation.” Cinema and Urban Space Reader (2012): n. pag. Print.
Napier, Susan J. “When the Machines Stop: Fantasy, Reality, and Terminal Identity in Neon Genesis Evangelion and Serial Experiments Lain.” Science Fictional Studies (2002): n. pag. Web. 20 Dec. 2012. .
Tokyo! Dir. Leos Carax, Joon-Ho Bong, and Michel Gondry. Perf. ‘Merde’, ‘Interior Design’,’Shaking Tokyo’ Optimum Home, 2008. DVD.
Tokyo Love Hello. Digital image. Youtube. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Dec. 2012. .
“Unhinged.” The Free Dicitonary. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Web. 03 Jan. 2013. .

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