In the parallel worlds of Japanese writer Haruki Murakami, the magic happens between the lines. His spartan lyricism, rendered in deceptively plain and airy prose, tends to shade without warning into deep, dizzying melancholy. It’s hard to fully grasp the chemistry of this process, and presumably harder still to transpose it to another medium. Last year’s Complicité stage production of The Elephant Vanishes was a triumph of outside-the-box adaptation that didn’t so much capture as intensify the Murakami mood (its brash poignancy, if anything, recalled the novelist’s more demonstrative cinematic cousin, Wong Kar-wai). Not counting a few stray shorts, film versions of Murakami have been non- existent (apparently he doesn’t permit them). For this rare attempt, director Jun Ichikawa smartly opts for a distilled minimalism, starting with his choice of source material: a mere wisp of a short story called “Tony Takitani” (which first appeared in English in The New Yorker three years ago).
Both protagonist and story are barely there, but “Takitani” is Murakami in miniature, a brief, precise inventory of the novelist’s themes: cosmic loneliness, the shadow of mortality, jazz, the coincidence of materialist abundance and spiritual barrenness. Ichikawa retains a portion of the text as voice-over. Given a Western name by his trombonist father (the suggestion of an American friend and the cause of some hostility in post-war Japan), the title character also inherits, as if by genetics, a lifelong burden of solitude. Growing up motherless and self-sufficient, he becomes an illustrator, specializing in meticulous sketches of machines. In early middle age, Tony (Issey Ogata) falls for and marries the much younger Eiko (Rie Miyazawa). Notwithstanding her expensive couture habit—before long, her racks of designer wear have taken over an entire room—the newlyweds enjoy a companionable relationship, until Eiko’s bid to restrain her shopaholic tendencies results in a fatal accident.
This union, an idyll so fleeting and so alien to everything Tony had known as to be almost illusory, neatly bisects the film. Before Eiko, Tony fails to recognize how alone he is; after her death, he’s forced to confront the possibility that loneliness may be his natural condition. (Ogata is a remarkably versatile stage actor who played the Japanese business associate in Edward Yang’s Yi Yi and Emperor Hirohito in Alexander Sokurov’s The Sun, and his performance here is wondrously subtle.) Tony first attempts to fill the void by hiring a secretary (also played by Miyazawa) with identical measurements as Eiko to wear her outfits while on the job. Soon enough, he changes his mind and disposes of her wardrobe—in the most haunting shot, Tony lies alone in her dressing room, empty and seeming now like his mausoleum (it echoes an earlier shot of his father, also played by Ogata, in a Chinese prison cell in the 1940s).
Shot in a wan, neutral palette that emphasizes its protagonist’s muted desolation, Ichikawa’s film is, in more ways than one, a model of economy: The elder Takitani’s Shanghai stint is conveyed in a series of sepia stills; most of the interiors utilize a single, repeatedly re-dressed set. Languid, left-to-right tracking shots, one image wiping into the next, give the impression of a picture book’s slowly turned pages. Ryuichi Sakamoto’s spare, insinuating piano score conjures an atmosphere of dreamlike suspension, as does the low-key voice-over, which at times trails off, only to be picked up by the characters. Oneiric as it is, though, Tony Takitani conveys a powerfully tangible sense of loss and loneliness. In both concrete and existential terms, it’s a film that dwells on what the dead leave behind and how the living carry on.