Isolated characters are better in printHaruki Murakami is one of the best-loved Japanese authors of the modern age. After the release of his breakout work, “Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World,” his free-flowing prose has found fans around the world. He’s dabbled in non-fiction, and “Underground,” his collection of interviews with victims and perpetrators of the 1995 gas attacks on the Tokyo subway, are standard reading on Japanese culture for many. But filmmakers have for the most part shied away from trying to adapt his dreamy narratives to the screen. “Tony Takitani,” directed and adapted by Jun Ichikawa, helps explain why.
One of Murakami’s lesser-known works, “Tony Takitani,” is a short story (and a very short film) about a man who goes through life lonely, holding his father at arm’s length and losing young the only woman he ever loved. As a mood piece, a nocturne of colors and sound, the film adaptation is very successful. As an entertaining piece of cinema, it’s not.
Tony (Issei Ogata) was born during the postwar revival of Japan to a jazz musician, and grows up to be a loner technical artist, drawing careful diagrams of motors and radios. He meets and marries Eiko (Rie Miyazawa), a woman addicted to buying new clothing. When she dies in a car crash, Tony at first seeks out a secretary to wear her clothes, but his wife’s shadow lingers in her old outfits and he finally sells her wardrobe instead. When Tony’s father dies, the same progression occurs with his old jazz records.
The film explores the echoes of identity people leave behind in objects and people they have touched, as well as the empathy of strangers: Ichikawa has Ogata play both Tony and Tony’s father, and Miyazawa plays both Eiko and the secretary who is supposed to replace her. The post-modern alienation of urban life takes much of the spotlight as well ― Tony has no real reason to connect himself to Eiko, but just seems happy to simply be around another human being, while Eiko is more connected to her compulsive purchases than to her husband. The loose but not hostile relationship (or lack of one) between Tony and his father can also be viewed as a commentary on Japanese social isolation.
Ryuichi Sakamoto, the genre-crossing Japanese jazz pianist and composer, provides a meditative score, and his reverberating riffs are a melancholy background to the characters’ desolate lives.
They also complement the film’s style and palette. Grays and blues dominate the screen, reminiscent perhaps of the inside of a cobalt Honda. Fixed wide shots and long pans separate the audience from the characters just as they are separated from each other. The vast majority of the story is also told through a narrator (Hidetoshi Nishijima), and two characters never have any actual dialogue.
It’s a very pretty and meaningful film, but when most of the speaking is done in voiceover one has to ask: Why not just read the story instead? Because no matter how fine a filmmaker Ichikawa is, he has done nothing to justify the existence of his adaptation.
by Ben Applegate