2005Director: Jun Ichikawa
Cast: Issey Ogata, Rie Miyazawa
xalted to stateside stardom by The New Yorker, Haruki Murakami has enjoyed an uncommonly warm reception from American readers. A sense of familiarity may be the first lure. Murakami is, after all, transparently Western: his curiosity about our literature and culture, his book titles culled from rock songs, his occidental prose style. What keeps these readers, perhaps, is Murakami’s talent for delicately illuminating his pet themes, materialism and alienation and solitude—themes that continue to anchor the American experience in particular, and the blindsiding vicissitudes of modern existence in general.
Three years ago, Murakami’s short story “Tony Takitani” ran in The New Yorker. It compressed his many themes into one fleeting, elegiac glance into the spiritual vacuum of urban life. Capturing this glance on celluloid, Jun Ichikawa has stretched Murakami’s slender story into a minimalist record of a man’s journey toward a tragic epiphany, that loneliness is his fate.
Thriving in the fading light of his middle age, Tony Takitani (Issey Ogata) toils as an industrial illustrator. As if cursed at birth, he is hopelessly disconnected from those around him. Smitten after five dates, he proposes to Eiko (Rie Miyazawa), a woman decades his junior, only later discovering her shopaholic thirst for couture. Her habit is so profound that she turns an entire room into a walk-in closet. Eiko admits she shops to fill a void inside. Nevertheless, Eiko brings Tony the blissful companionship he’s lived without his entire life.
Then tragedy interrupts their idyllic moment. On a trip to return clothes, Eiko gets in an accident. The suggestion is that, once seduced by materialism, there’s no turning back. It takes Eiko’s death to show Tony how lonely he had been: after tasting the accompanied life, he learned what he had been missing. Unequipped to cope with his loss, in the vertigo of bereavement, Tony resorts to hiring a look-alike secretary (also played by Miyazawa) to wear Eiko’s clothes. Upon realizing his mistake, he purges her closet.
When Tony lies down in her vacant wardrobe, now a boxy cavern, the image invokes his father penned in a Chinese prison cell. They are both trapped: Tony into a cycle of conspicuous consumption, his father into a life under ironhanded rule.
While the plot’s more unlikely turns have echoes of Ionesco—or even Plautus, with Tony cast as the senex amator—the film’s impulses are never comic, let alone farcical. More accurately, they are the silhouettes of hyperbole. Its outsize elements, as in a fable, shepherd our attention toward the moral.
Each scene has a cold aridity, amplified by the sameness of its set pieces (often the same set, redecorated). Together they convey the icy, evacuating homogeneity that can attend life in the city. Much has been made of Ichikawa’s travel between scenes. In deliberately paced tracking shots, the camera glides rightward, the next scene pushing out the last one. Some are reminded of the slow turning of pages, of a book or photo album. Others sense the fatalistic drift of history.
In the hypnotic New Wave voiceovers blending into the characters’ dialogue, Murakami’s doleful touch is evident. Framed within Ryuichi Sakamoto’s plangent haze of piano lilts and Hirokawa Taishi’s elegantly drained and remote cinematography, the film dissolves into a dreamy requiem for a world of connections, sadly replaced by a world of consumption.
Wayward critics have diagnosed Tony Takitani with a strain of narrative anorexia. They say its plot is skeletal, its sets are too sparse and its palette too stark. Its lineaments are misread as testimony of an auteur’s chutzpah: he has the nerve to exploit Murakami’s wisp of a story in an exercise in style. But this sense of emptiness is calculated, a function of the plot, of Tony’s spiritual arc, and of the desolate motifs recurring at the film’s heart.
As with Jia Zhangke’s The World, an equally overcast study of modern anomie, Tony Takitani’s formal qualities spring from considered directorial choices. Ichikawa, like Zhangke, has absorbed the lessons of Ozu. Every shot is precisely framed. But he trades Ozu’s inert gaze for roving, diffident camerawork, keeping its distance in perpetual motion. A floating rootlessness is the effect.
Unlike The World, as the chasm between the titles betrays, Tony Takitani is more deeply bound to the fate of a single man. Still, it escapes solipsism. It is more about our spiritual decay as individuals than as a society. It thrusts our grappling with romance and mortality, concepts at last reckoned with individually, to the fore. Little by little Tony Takitani peels off the rinds of our consumerist culture of surfaces to expose its glacial, rotten core.
By: Roque Strew
Published on: 2005-11-11