Filming the unfilmable

Transferring Murakami to the big screen

Without emotional pyrotechnics, the dizzy snap of clever dialogue or frantic images, American film audiences tend to become impatient or bored. A movie that indulges in ruminative silences and an abstract narrative will likely be dismissed as “slow” or artsy-fartsy. Even a cross-over success like Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (accused of both things) required the presence of Bill Murray to garner attention — not to mention funding.

As such, probably only adventurous cineastes will seek out Jun Ichikawa’s Tony Takitani — a tragic shame, because this exquisitely poised examination of longing and loss will haunt your memory long after the credits roll.

Adapted from a short story by Japanese writer Haruki Murakami, the film brilliantly captures the emotional displacement and dreamy tone of the author’s best work. Generally considered unfilmable, his fiction is more concerned with the experience of reading than the literal implications of plotlines. The linguistic calisthenics and emotional flights of poetry of his stories are as far removed from the conventions of popular cinema as you can get. Still, Ichikawa has turned one of Murakami’s more linear tales into an intensely focused character study.

Tony Takitani is the child of a jazz musician father and a mother who died when he was young. Companionless, he grows up in emotional isolation and eventually becomes a quiet and withdrawn man who lives alone. His life is one of quiet contentment, until he meets Eiko, a young fashion-obsessed woman. Suddenly Tony finds himself in love, awakened to a life he never knew he was missing. Despite the difference in their ages, they marry and Tony learns the depths of his wife’s compulsion to shop — the one wrinkle in their otherwise idyllic relationship. When Tony gently asks Eiko to limit her spending habits, it sets off a chain of events that evokes Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.

Like the act of reading, Ichikawa reveals his story with a camera that slides left to right, revealing scene after scene of perfectly composed images. The steady forward motion conveys the sensation of pages being turned, and life slowly passing Tony by. The effect is hypnotic, drawing us into the character’s sad song of yearning.

Hidetoshi Nishijima’s third-person narration feeds us Tony’s inner emotions and thoughts, perfectly capturing the tone of Murakami’s writing. The commentary blends seamlessly with dialogue, and the characters occasionally address the audience directly or voice their inner monologues. Sometimes they even finish or respond to Nishijima’s voice-over, delivering surprising moments of humor or insight.

One of Ichikawa’s more audacious and masterful conceits is to cast Issei Ogata as both Tony and his father, and Rie Miyazawa as Eiko and Hisako, another woman who affects Tony’s lonely life. Both actors are terrific, and their dual casting creates an intimate world where every image and gesture loops back on itself. A lilting and evocative piano score by Ryuichi Sakamoto and immaculate cinematography round things out, complementing the haze of poetic isolation that permeates the movie.

Like a perfectly constructed haiku, Tony Takitani avoids big ideas and themes in favor of unpretentious elegance and understated beauty. And with an economical running time of 75 minutes, director Ichikawa challenges us to sit still long enough to appreciate the profundity of Murakami’s deceptively concise story.


In Japanese with English subtitles. Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237), 7:30 p.m., Monday, Dec. 5.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

Scroll to read more Arts Stories & Interviews articles


Join Detroit Metro Times Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.