What is it about Tokyo that provokes such strong emotions in visitors? Why does that city, seemingly more than any other, amplify the visitor's experience of alienation and confusion?
"It's the magnitude of everything there," said Mohd Naguib Razak, director of Glass Enclosure: Tokyo Invisible, which screens today in the Taiwan International Documentary Festival.
"Take all the feelings of isolation, the alienation, the sense of insignificance one gets in a strange city and they are multiplied many fold simply because Tokyo is so huge."
But because these feelings are so common, movies about them are a dime a dozen and most of them are barely worth that small amount.
"I know that practically every foreigner that goes to Tokyo picks up a camera and tries to make a film about the city," Razak said. Like Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation? "I hate that movie," he said. "I tried to avoid that pitfall of taking pot shots at Japan."
So, while still consciously filmed from the perspective of an outsider, Glass Enclosure takes a different tack to look into the life of the city. Through interviews and images of overlooked details of the metropolis, Razak allows Tokyo to speak to him and to slowly reveal itself one facet at a time as a complex and contradictory place.
His experience of the city wasn't always so nuanced, however. He arrived in the city on a six-month fellowship with the intention of filming a biopic of filmmaker Naomi Kawase. But that plan fell through within three months and left Razak without a film, or even a plan for one, and with only a few months left of his fellowship.
"I decided I wanted to connect with the city, not retreat into a comfort zone like many foreigners do in Tokyo by saying, `Oh, the Japanese, they have their own thing, it's just totally different,'" Razak said.
Running time: 103 minutes
Screening time and location: Tonight, 6:10pm, Showtime Cinema
Finally, with two months of the fellowship left, he began filming with a different purpose in mind: to make a kind of video diary of himself coming to know the city.
On the first day of his new project, Razak boards the Yamamote Line and meets a man who talks enthusiastically to him about himself, about Tokyo and about Japan. He is one of the few subjects in the film whose face is shown. Most of the narration is provided without showing the interviewees' faces as they offer their thoughts on the city and on Japanese society.
At times, their comments are boiler-plate observations that sound manufactured for a foreigner's ears, but gradually the interviewees digress into deeply personal matters that have little if any relevance to the city or to the society at large. Hearing these voices and their individual stories, one begins to feel the humanity in the city while the stereotypical idea of Tokyo as an unfriendly, automaton-filled, concrete metropolis begins to fade.
Ultimately, a young man talks of the death of one of his best childhood friends a few years earlier in a motorcycle accident. Razak shows the man's face to say that with this final interview, we've made a connection with the culture. "After that interview I felt like, `this is real, this is what it's about,'" he said.
There are moments in Glass Enclosure that reinforce certain popular perceptions of the city, such as the masses of marching salarymen and the ubiquitous neon signs, but the images and narration seek to confound the stereotypes of Tokyo. Razak shot empty subway cars, abundant green spaces, flowers, blue skies and people leisurely sauntering down narrow alleys -- hardly the typical images of life in Tokyo. The open-ended nature of the story's conclusion leaves the viewer with the feeling that Tokyo is these things and more.