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AT SUNDANCE: RECURRING REFRAINS

Cinema is full of failed literary adaptations, attempts by famous directors to translate the work of their favorite novelists into images and screen action. Most of these films crash, however, by the sheer weight of their ambition. Tackling a writer’s best known book, they invariably disappoint his or her hardcore partisans when what’s particularly riveting about the work becomes less interesting when it’s visualized.

Japanese director Jun Ichikawa avoided all of the Great Author-to-Film pitfalls with his Tony Takitani, an adaptation of a story by the great Haruki Murakami. Not so much a film as a celluloid ode to Murakami and his oeuvre, Tony Takitani is based on a slender short fiction but the material somehow encapsulates many of the author’s recurring themes: loneliness, the loss of a wife, cultural estrangement, jazz, and even a fetish for designer clothing. The story is a simple one. Tony Takitani, an industrial illustrator, has a quiet life and beautiful wife. His only problem is her shopping addiction, which consumes much of his money. And her racks of designer-wear take up a separate room in his house. After her accidental death, Takitani tries to escape his depression by hiring a housegirl who he’ll pay to wear his dead wife’s clothes. Of course, such coping mechanisms are not so simple…

Ichikawa captures Murakami’s essence by overlaying his hypnotic prose, in voiceover, over a series of tableaus, each containing a single dramatic moment which is often filmed in one shot. The camera dollies left-to-right from one tableau to the next, giving the film the feel of a particularly elegant graphic novel. There’s little dialogue, but sometimes the voiceover will break and the next line will be said by the actor in the scene. Throughout it all Ryuichi Sakamoto’s jazz piano winds its way, announcing a theme, departing from it, and then welcoming us back to its emotional space at a key moment in the story. (The film is also a model of low-budget ingenuity, using archival stills to zip through period backstories and using one single set, continually redressed, for all of its interior locations.)

I’m sure that there are filmmakers after such Murakami classic novels as Hard-Boiled Wonderland or even his new Kafka on the Shore, but I can’t imagine any of them being more successful at capturing his particular voice within a different medium than Ichikawa. His Tony Takitani will be released by Strand this June.

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