Quietly surreal in quality, populated by characters that redefine the words ‘quirky’ and ‘dysfunctional’, the internationally popular and highly critically acclaimed works of Japanese author Haruki Murakami are wondrous and fascinating and inarguably unique. But by the very same token, one probably would never have really considered any Murakami novel suitable for translation to film, if the idea ever even occurred to start with.
In taking Tony Takitani (a short story written almost a decade ago and printed in English in the New Yorker in 2002), ex-commercial director Jun Ichigawa has breached a seemingly impossible barrier; he has made the transition from Murakami to moving pictures, and he has done so with astonishing grace and delicacy, creating a serene and poignant film highly worthy of its original source and yet remarkably his own. The result is a relatively short, sparse and yet deeply evocative ode to isolation, loss and the potential for renewal, rendered in tones reminiscent of Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu and American 1920’s painter Edward Hopper, with Ichigawa’s own sense of gloss and style and impeccable timing overlaying the whole.
Tony, played superbly by Issei Ogata (Yi Yi), like many Murakami characters lives in a world within the world, not so much out of synch as existing in a vacuum. The screen in which he is framed is always empty, motionless; it’s not Tony that travels through this film, only the camera, in slow sweeps from one scene to another, one room to another, diminishing the distance between spaces, the definition between lines, reinforcing constantly exactly how isolated Tony is with a subtle, gentler hand. With an almost lyrical narration by Hidetoshi Nishijima (Casshern, Dolls) and minimalist dialogue, watching this film is like dreaming, like floating, disconnected and yet aware and able to care not in spite of but because of the distance felt. It resonates, and it’s masterfully done and quite necessary. Murakami characters do not emote; in Tony Takitani, Ichigawa has time and the entropy created by absence, both visually and narratively, do it for them. Without that sense of disconnection what unfolds as the film progresses, an awakening of sorts of the yearning for connection, would not have been heard.
Left to his own devices as a child by a Jazz musician father (also played by Ogata) who himself never really learned how to connect with others, Tony’s quiet adult life as a successful illustrator is interrupted when he meets the beautiful Eiko (Rie Miyazawa – Twilight Samurai, Ashura jo no Hitomi), who represents all the things he possibly never knew he needed. It seems an idyllic match, until the holes in Eiko’s own existence become apparent. Restless and empty, she seeks to fill in those blanks with off-the-rack answers, filling wardrobes, and then an entire room with compulsive clothing purchases that leave her still empty, still without answers.
And then an accident claims her life, leaving Tony aware of the spaces in him that her presence in his life had begun to sound, the room full of clothes like a cast off shell, a metaphor perhaps for the vacancy of Tony’s own inner landscape with which he begins to struggle without even really knowing how. It’s this awkward yearning that is at the heart of the film. Tony’s request that his new housekeeper wear his dead wife’s clothes while she’s working makes him vulnerable to everyone but himself – it’s not grief that he has become afraid of and the introduction of Hisako into the picture (incidentally also played by the same actress) is not a second chance, it is another step.
What you come away with, in the end, is not an intellectual summary of the state of loneliness, nor a moral or social position from which to judge choices or flaws, but the feeling that you have, for the last seventy minutes or so, been somehow also alone. What you come away with is an affirmation of the need and inherent comfort of others, and how that fulfils in ways unimaginable. Tony Takitani starts and ends in pictures of isolation, but somewhere along the way finds that such pictures do not necessarily have to be viewed alone.