Tony Takitani first published by Film4 in 2004
Summary: Issei Ogata finds loneliness, love, loss, and then loneliness again, in Jun Ichikawa’s stylish adaptation of a Haruki Murakami short story.
Review: In the writings of Haruki Murakami, style is every bit as important as content. The events may be somewhat surreal, the characters eccentric, but the prose in which all these are dressed is so plain, precise and detached that they never seem very far from the ordinary. There have been occasional short films based on Murakami’s stories, like Naoto Yamakawa’s Panya Shugeki (1982) and Hyaku Percent no Onna no Ko (1983), and more recently Emilie Carlsson Gras’ Dansa med dvärgar (2003)1Subsequent feature-length adaptations of Murakami have included Tran Anh Hung’s Norwegian Wood (2008), Lee Chang-dong‘s Burning (2018) and Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car (2021).; but the Japanese author has for the most part been reluctant to allow filmmakers to adapt his richly mannered works, for fear of what will inevitably become lost in the translation from page to screen. Yet in permitting Jun Ichikawa to make the feature-length Tony Takitani, derived from his 1990 short story of the same name, Murakami has found a cinematic costume that is the perfect fit for his literary fiction.
Tony Takitani (Issei Ogata) seems destined for loneliness. His mother died three days after his birth, his father Shozaburo (also played by Ogata), a touring musician, is rarely at home, and even his Americanised forename alienates him from his fellow Japanese. Growing up to be a successful technical illustrator, Tony lives in self-contained solitude, until one day he meets the younger Eiko (Miyazawa Rie), and for the first time realises all that he has been missing. They are soon married, but the immaculately dressed Eiko also has a void in her own life, which she tries to fill by compulsively purchasing endless items of haute couture. When she has enough outfits to fill an entire room, Tony gently suggests that she cut down on the high-end shopping trips, with disastrous consequences. Alone once again, with only Eiko’s rows of designer costumes for company, Tony advertises for a female assistant with the same measurements as his wife; but when Hisako (also played by Rie) shows up, Tony can see only what he has lost.
In Tony Takitani, Ichikawa brilliantly captures Murakami’s blend of whimsy, irony and melancholy, by remaining sensitive to the spirit of the original story, while finding intelligent and inventive ways to convert the author’s verbal idiosyncrasies to a visual medium. The film’s bookish origins are marked both by the presence of an unseen omniscient narrator (Nishijima Hidetoshi) whose quiet, measured tone conveys Murakami’s cool style; and by the prevalence in the film of scenes which end with the camera drifting to one side of the frame, subtly suggestive of the eyes’ movement as a page turns. The spareness of Murakami’s prose is conveyed by the decolorised shadings of the print, by Ichida Yoshikazu’s beautifully minimalist sets, and by the performances of the two leads, austere to the point that their faces are often turned away from the camera if not entirely out of shot. Ryuichi Sakamoto’s piano score forms a near constant backdrop to the film’s events, modulating a tone that is somewhere between plaintiveness and caprice.
Tony, Eiko and Hisako, when they talk at all, often do so not to engage in dialogue with each other, but to take over the task of the narrator, so that they refer to themselves in the past tense, and even at times in the third person. It is a strange effect, as though a character from a story were coming partly to life – but it is also a reflection on the nature of adaptation to film, where literary figures are for the first time allowed their own voice and physicality, even if their story remains essentially the same. And so Ichikawa has crafted a film that repeatedly advertises its own slightness and artificiality, but at the same time overwhelms viewers with genuine feelings of loss, longing and sadness. The delicate balance that he achieves between formality and informality, surface and depth, aesthetics and emotions, is pure cinema – but it is also pure Murakami, making this one of the finest literary adaptations ever to have graced the screen.
Verdict: Beautiful, whimsical, and deeply melancholic, Jun Ichikawa’s adaptation brings Murakami’s prose to life by clothing it in the language of cinema.