Haruki Murakami is one of, if not the, most lauded of the postwar Japanese authors on the contemporary literary scene. His quirky and surreal take on modern day Japan are peopled with passive heroes unknowingly wandering into mysteries involving psychic sheep, missing cats, and shadowy right-wing figures that come out of a dream. It’s these touchstones of his style that have made him wildly popular, but also seemingly impossible to adapt to the big screen. How can such unique visions driven often by just internal monologues be turned into a movie? Jun Ichikawa (no relation to Kon Ichikawa) the director of such modern Japanese classics as “Dying at a Hospital” and “Osaka Story” deciding to take one of Murakami’s short stories to answer that very question. The result, 2004’s “Tony Takitani” is both an astounding success and a bitter failure.
The story begins during the war; Shozaburo Takitani is a devil-may-care jazz horn player who barely survives a Chinese prison camp before returning to Japan during the American occupation. He marries a cousin and has a baby his wife dies only a few days later. Their boy, Tony Takitani, (stage actor Issei Ogata playing both Shozaburo and Tony), is a typical isolated and idiosyncratic Murakami character; a man who’s formative years have been made even more isolated by having been saddled with a Western name by his father on the advice of an American army major. Despite being ostracized by his peers Tony has one extraordinary talent: the ability to make hyper-realistic drawings of objects, drawings “…realer than the real thing.” With this talent Tony becomes a very successful, very lonely technical illustrator. All this changes when he meets a young publisher, Eiko (Rie Miyazawa), a woman of great beauty, but harboring a secret shopping addiction, one that in the end will entirely change Tony’s life.
It sounds like a slim story, and it is. The original is only just over 6,000 words, and Ichikawa stays faithful to the source material by keeping Tony’s story of loneliness and search for love short as well, only 76 minutes. Issei Ogata’s superb performance makes the running time seem even shorter. Emotions bottled up, Ogata’s Tony is just as fascinating and cold as one of his drawings, a joy for life only peeking out when he meets Eiko. For his performance as Shozaburo Ogata is even more enigmatic, in fact I wasn’t even aware of the dual performance until I was researching this review. Not only Ogata deserves praise though; Miyazawa, who has her own dual performance, is exquisite and achingly sad.
So with all this praise heaped on it so far how could I categorize “Tony Takitani” as a bitter failure? To answer that I have to again point to Ichikawa’s desire to stay as faithful to the original story as possible. I don’t mind voice over in a film. I don’t think it’s a failure by the filmmaker and screenwriter to properly utilize the medium of film to tell a story, in fact in a literary adaptation of a Murakami work it might be necessary, but the lengths to which this is taken in the film are a tad ridiculous. The text from the original story is used as voice over almost verbatim throughout the film and while Ichikawa chooses an interesting technique whereby what starts out as voice over becomes dialogue the failure to truly adapt the story as opposed to just “filming” it is a real disappointment, especially when the faithfulness is betrayed during the last moments when a happy ending is tacked on. In the end see this film for yourself and make your final judgment.