directed by Jun Ichikawa, 2004, based on a short story by Haruki Murakami
It’s a little bit difficult to write about anything Murakami without even friends lining up in defense of the extremely capable author (I stress that this came down taste and not skill—maybe I seek less subtle hand-wringing, I don’t know). And when the pink-cased DVD was passed under my nose, the two sets of four stars on the front and three sets out back set off a hesitant curiosity. I thought, maybe if I condense my experience of Murakami within seventy five minutes with the added help of visual metaphors and a cinematographer faithful in the neutral tones suggested by Murakami’s style, perhaps I would understand not only why this film was ‘near as dammit perfect’, but how Murakami tells a story from beginning to end.
I don’t think I have ever gone further than twenty pages of a Murakami book, and I recall disappearing when Murakami was just about to describe a cat in an alley. From the second hand synopses I have come across, Murakami’s style can either be consuming or suffocating, but as a pedestrian critic, I took the fence for this film. In Tony Takitani, we see the Japan of the author—toning down the neon and LED light of our mainstream perceptions of Japan’s urban life, and in place of those, crafting muted fairytales of a paler and more lonesome humanity, revealing that all of us, audience included, are victims of our eccentricities.
Tony Takitani (Issey Ogata) is a lonely illustrator named after an American that his father, a traveling trombonist, knew, and this Western souvenir alienated him from people who didn’t understand what the name meant. Though they would meet once in a while, Tony grew up detached from his widowed father, living life hunched over his solo meals, his desk, and his bicycle. Tony, now nearing middle-age, meets Eiko (Rie Miyazawa), a woman fifteen years younger than him, and marries her five dates later, airing out his loneliness momentarily—anticipating the fear of its return and then forgetting it was ever there.
Short as the film was, given the way it had been narrated (that is, as the author would be translated), the cinematic time for this film was immensely slow. The shots were careful, curving gently around Tony’s face as if unwilling to upset him. The laborious and indulgent breathing of Tony’s lonely life are like beautiful scenes from a View-Master, and each short, uncelebrated moment in Tony’s life moves as though there are pages ripped out without anyone noticing. Like in a play, the actors deliberately stay in place, slyly winking, as the camera takes us into the black void where it can begin again.
This black void is also found in the occasional interruption of the narrator by the characters, whose substitute narration of the ‘he said, she said’ can feel like an invasion of privacy, not on their end but on ours.
The characters are talking to us without the means to address us. The narrator explains the fate Tony’s father, by showing how he shifts his bones to meet the concrete floor of a prison, and suddenly, this character says, “was as slim as a single strand of hair”, seeking sympathy in the knowledge that we are watching. Later on, Tony’s wife leans on his chest as she explains herself before they sleep, and when she narrates to us, I can’t tell who is being observed. Then, much later, Tony lies on the carpeted floor of his wife’s emptied out dressing room, imprisoned by her loss, the way his father had been imprisoned. Again, knowing we are watching.
If they didn’t know, they wouldn’t pull us by our collars to show us the very spots they had created to elicit an emotion from us: the collapse of a stack of onions in a supermarket, the slow-motion breaking of glass that followed Tony’s confrontation over his wife’s spending habits, the piano to signal extended bouts of pity, or the script that very often felt like a collection of aphorisms, delivered slowly so that we might consume the meaning before the sentence ends and leave a tear as a period.
I understand the four stars, and I stress once more that I respect the skill of Murakami and of course, Ichikawa. But like I also said, it really comes down to taste.
It’s a beautiful story. But to me, Tony Takitani is no longer a short story, no longer a film. It is theater, and it knows we are sitting there. And without being able to come down from the stage, the film can never be real life, at least, not with broken glass and not with so much beauty.