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 hard-core partisans since 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 masterful 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 house girl whom 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 laying his hypnotic prose, in voiceover, over a series of tableaux, 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.)
Commenting on the film’s deliberate minimalism, Ichikawa says, “I realized the realistic style I had used [in my previous films] would be useless to make a film based on a Murakami story. It seems his fictional world is drifting in the air, a few inches above the ground. So I eliminated as many ‘cinematic’ aspects as possible.”
While Murakami’s work is often slowly paced, Ichikawa’s movie flies by. “Of all Murakami’s stories, “Tony Takitani” is narrated at a very fast pace,” he explains. “I think its quick, dry tempo is effective in implying the transience of life. In making this film, I wanted to show ‘fatalistic loneliness’ at the pace of a sweeping wind. What I always find in the work of Haruki Murakami and feel empathy for is his consistent awareness and viewpoint that our life is transient and our being is so tiny that even our existence might not matter. I wanted to make his story into a film about the people whose existence does not matter... It might sound paradoxical, but by showing the ‘emptiness’ of these people, I want to make the audience feel that there’s no one whose life is useless or meaningless.”
Strand will release Tony Takitani in June.