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Review: Tokyo! and House of Bamboo

“Tokyo Stories”, Japan Society’s special showcase of Japanese movies made by foreigners, has entered its final weekend. Despite my exhaustion following a particularly long week of work, I dragged myself out of bed and ventured uptown to catch two screenings:

  • Tokyo!: This 2008 anthology film is essentially a microcosm of the entire retrospective, featuring contributions from directors of multiple diverse nationalities. In Michel Gondry’s Interior Design, a relationship drama seasoned with a pinch of magical realism, a young woman struggles to find employment in the big city, all the while grappling with her feelings of inadequacy—especially as her more ambitious boyfriend manages to achieve some measure of success; eventually, she embraces invisibility by… transforming into a chair (yup, sounds about right for Gondry). Leos Carax’s Merde puts an absurdist spin on the classic kaiju formula, replacing Godzilla with a deformed, sewer-dwelling hobo that wreaks havoc across the country, stealing cigarettes, consuming cash, and chucking grenades with wild abandon. Finally, Bong Joon-ho’s Shaking Tokyo peers into the claustrophobic home of a hikikomori (which basically translates to “shut-in”), who, following ten years of total social isolation, is forced to once again confront humanity when an eccentric pizza delivery girl abruptly collapses on his doorstep during a violent earthquake. Encompassing a wide variety of tones, styles, and themes, Tokyo! is a true cinematic treasure. I can’t adequately describe its innumerable pleasures with text alone; it demands to be experienced.

  • House of Bamboo: After the experimental delights of Tokyo!, this far more conventional studio picture—produced by 20th Century Fox, shot in CinemaScope with color by DeLuxe, and helmed by pulp fiction auteur Samuel Fuller—was the perfect palate cleanser. Robert Stack, starring as a former G.I. turned petty crook, epitomizes Playboy-era masculinity: he talks with his fists, has a pithy one-liner for every conceivable situation, and has absolutely no patience for dames and their silly emotions. Fresh off the boat in Japan, he joins a criminal organization formed by fellow disgraced soldiers and embarks on a series of audacious heists. All is not as it initially appears, however; our hard-boiled hero is, in fact, an undercover military policeman, and with the aid of a sympathetic local girl, he must infiltrate the gang’s inner circle and put a stop to its reign of terror. Although the plot is somewhat predictable, it’s presented with enough flair and panache to keep the viewer engaged. And while Fuller is occasionally guilty of “exoticizing” his setting, he at least has the decency to acknowledge that the American protagonist is the oddball within the context of the narrative, rather than mocking the “otherness” of Asian cultures.

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