Michel Gondry Pinch Hits for Tokyo!

Ayako Fujitani and Ryo Kase in Tokyo!


“In the movies, you can’t be offended to be second choice,” said Michel Gondry, and he could well have been talking about The Green Hornet, which Columbia tapped him to direct last month after Kung Fu Hustle‘s Stephen Chow backed out. But in fact, he was referring to Tokyo!—the three-part portmanteau film that includes a Gondry short, “Interior Design,” and featurettes by Leos Carax and Bong Joon-ho. Discussing the film last week at the Soho Grand, the two Frenchmen in that group said they’d been backup choices. Aki Kaurismaki, or Abbas Kiarostami, and maybe some others (they couldn’t quite remember) had been approached before them. Gondry didn’t seem bothered.
“Interior Design,” which he co-wrote with girlfriend Gabrielle Bell, revolves around familiar Gondry protagonists: a creative duo with big dreams and limited resources. Hiroko (Ayako Fujitani) and Akira (Ryo Kase) have just moved to Tokyo. He’s a penniless filmmaker; she likes art and photography, but doesn’t know what that makes her. As he starts to flourish, she struggles to find a job and starts wondering if she has anything to offer the world. Then she morphs into a wooden chair. “This character had this feeling, and no way to express it,” Bell says of the film’s Surrealist turn. “She could have complained, or she could have cried or thrown something. But it’s such a difficult-to-define feeling that the [best] way to express it is [by] sort of distorting reality.”
Her transformation happens in the course of an otherwise naturalistic story, in the middle of a very real-feeling city. “In my opinion, it’s more interesting to see magic happening in a world that feels grounded,” Gondry says. “If the world is already crazy, then anything can happen. So it’s better to start with something real.” That’s pretty much been the definition of “Surrealism” since Buñuel, but Gondry resists assigning a name to his method.  “It’s very hard to say I’m surrealist. It’s like saying I’m poetic. It’s not something you want necessarily to be aware of.”
Although Gondry did use some CGI in this film, he defines himself against filmmakers like Bong (who used CGI to superb effect in The Host and whose earthquake romance “Shaking Tokyo” closes out Tokyo!) who routinely rely on it. “You get accidents when you shoot the effect in-camera that make it interesting,” he says.
“There’s nothing worse than a dream sequence done all in post-production.  I remember this movie [What Dreams May Come] where Robin Williams was going into his dreams, and it was all done in CGI and it was just repulsive—[whereas] in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, this classic of the ghost story, he’s just there and you come back and he’s not there anymore. I think that’s way more visceral as a feeling than if you see him go pffsssh.”
Gondry detractors have speculated that his Green Hornet production will be heavy on cardboard and tinsel. Now that he’s stepped in, though, at least it won’t be going “pffsssh.”

TOKYO!  opens in New York today.