Fashion Victim: Jun Ichikawa’s “Tony Takitani”
by Kristi Mitsuda with responses from Jeff Reichert and Michael Koresky
[ indieWIRE’s weekly reviews are written by critics from Reverse Shot. ]
“Tony Takitani” is a sad song of loneliness from the start. Both highly specific and somehow universal in its conjuring of melancholy, Jun Ichikawa‘s film traces the title character’s fundamental separateness as sprung forth and emblematized by his name. Its non-native origins — suggested by an American friend of his mostly-absent, jazz-playing father — confuses the Japanese with its false implications of mixed parentage in the immediate post-WWII period — on top of the pre-existing wariness with which the group-oriented people tend to regard the unconventional — and secures Tony Takitani (Issey Ogata) a companionless childhood. He insists, “I never thought I was especially lonely,” as the opening title appears onscreen.
With a subdued palette of de-colorized celluloid and copious shots of skylines at night (does anything exacerbate the solitary soul so much as the twinkling lights symbolic of other lives out there in the distance?) Ichikawa crafts a superlatively poetic study of isolation. And, though I’d prefer not to harp too much on its “Japaneseness” along the Noel Burch lines, it must be acknowledged that, with its long, leisurely pans drifting from left to right, watching “Tony Takitani” often feels like following a scroll as it’s lovingly laid out. This splendorous unfurling, incorporating the occasional pause to linger on an image before continuing on its path, creates a simpatico visual structure for the diaphanous film to hang itself on. Combined with the lyricism of the language and lilting music by Ryuichi Sakamoto, the effect is trance-like, and aptly harnesses the floating quality of the Haruki Murakami short story on which the movie is based.
It also conveys the sensation of life passing Tony slowly by, as he continues on the outskirts of interaction well into adulthood, ensconced in his fitting occupation as a technical illustrator. He seems resigned to remain so until one day Eiko (Rie Miyazawa) delivers some papers to his office, and he falls in love at first sight. Married soon thereafter, Tony finds the absence of solitude mildly disconcerting: “It scares me so much, I break into a cold sweat,” he says aloud, at the prospect of its return. Such notations, voiced directly to the audience via the central characters, act in concert with extensive third-person narration; the interjections add levity to what might otherwise be a stiflingly somber affair. Significantly, during these brief interludes of direct address, eye contact is always averted and the characters often positioned at angles to the camera, faces obscured by their hair. The maneuver introduces a strange, slipping-away quality.
Having complimented her on their first date with the observation “I’ve never met anyone who inhabits her clothes with such obvious relish as you do,” Tony is nonetheless unprepared for the extremity of his wife’s sartorial attachment. A stay-at-home wife, her consumerist urge for new clothes seems a romantic drive to render a necessity of daily life — getting dressed — an artfulness. Her compulsion to shop is treated with both amusement and affection, but, as it’s the one blight on their otherwise harmonious marriage, Tony one day requests that she curb her spending habits. It results in a freak accident which delivers Tony once again into the cold arms of a loneliness verging this time on the absolute. The lengthy pans, which, upon his coupledom, ultimately give way to more frequent still shots — evincing a happy stability — now grind to a near-halt.
There’s something heartbreakingly human in the way Eiko’s fetishism transfers itself to her grieving husband. He is curiously moved by her “shadows,” the racks of designer labels hanging quietly in the converted-room closet, which used to graze so gracefully her skin. At one point, the camera scans worshipfully along a row of coats, pausing to bring each into focus, making the material tactile for us so that we, like Tony, feel the specific weight and texture of their presence. Days after seeing “Tony Takitani,” I’m still haunted by the image of him standing alone in the room, staring endlessly at the lovely clothes which seem still to carry some of her spirit. That such a slim (only 75 minutes), understated movie can support such depths of feeling is nothing short of thrilling. It’d make you cry, if you weren’t rejoicing at its beauty.
By Jeff Reichert
As a hardcore Murakami fan, I couldeither be the best or worst kind of viewer for Jun Ichikawa’s adaptation of his story “Tony Takitani.” This first attempt at adapting his work ends up a mixed blessing — while Ichikawa goes to great pains, and largely succeeds, at recreating Murakami’s by-now characteristic world of solitude, lingering silences, and repetitive mundane living punctured by odd, inexplicable obsessions, his choice of source material ties him closely to the limitations of the writer. Where early novels like “The Wild Sheep Chase,” and “Norwegian Wood” coasted on the sheer audacity of their imagining, it was always easy to lob stones at their author — was he more than a massively skilled confectioner with a sweet tooth for surrealism?
1994 saw Murakami answer critics with the weighty “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” wherein a historical consciousness only heretofore hinted at takes center stage as the Japanese occupation of Manchuria during WWII rubbed shoulders with his usual cast of present-day eccentrics and loners. “Wind-Up Bird” was so good that it blasted a deep divide between lesser and major works in his bibliography and continues to dare the rest of his fiction to stand up against it. He’s largely succeeded in the novels that followed but “Tony Takitani” (the story) registers at “minor, flawed” on the Murakami scale and “Tony Takitani” (the film), for this fan, suffers as a result.
It’s not for lack of attempt on Ichikawa’s part at overcoming the narrative’s essential flimsiness and questionable ascribing of the more serious consequences of pathological behavior to female characters, always Murakami’s Achilles’ heel (but certainly an aspect that might not register as such without prior knowledge of his works). Ichikawa’s inventive formal strategy — his camera only moves left to right and his tracking shots are broken by invisible edits that mark breaks in narrative time — is softly radical; so lulling that you’ll hardly notice you’re watching a rather rigorous aesthetic experiment. (In this regard, it’s not unlike the successful stage realization of three of Murakami’s stories as “The Elephant Vanishes” which ran at Lincoln Center last year.)
The coherence of the aesthetic matches an art design that sees characters occupying clean white and grey spaces rendered with a soft graininess — “Tony Takitani” literally glows. Ably performed and wonderfully scored by Ryuichi Sakamoto, it’s hard to complain about a film with a touch so light that it only barely overstays its welcome at 75 minutes. But still the nagging problem remains: think too hard and you may leave the theater wondering what the point of it all was. Take “Takitani” for what it is, and you might find it’s a better, less engorging piece of mid-summer eye candy than “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.”
[ Jeff Reichert is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot. He is currently employed as Director of Marketing and Publicity for Magnolia Pictures. ]
By Michael Koresky
Jun Ichikawa’s lonely “Tony Takitani” drifts across the screen in a scroll, enveloping you in an emotional and visual crawlspace of browns and grays. Certainly one of cinema’s best approximations of short-story narrative structure, “Takitani” is so deceptively miniscule one might not notice how radical its aesthetic impulses are. Some may end up calling the film “lovely” or “like a lullaby” — a testament to the central complications of Ichikawa’s approach to the Murakami story. It’s a tragedy played out as a sedative, a horror story that feels like a romance. The phantom shapes that remain in the stead of Tony’s deceased fashion-victim wife, hanging in the closet-altar at which she prayed, perfectly embody the emptiness of material possession and the question of what remains after we’re gone. Of course what remains are those left behind, in this case Tony (Issey Ogata, brilliantly capturing the hollow frustrations of personal and professional life), who spirals downward into a sort of “Vertigo”-style makeover mania.
The presentation of flesh-and-blood characters who are in a sense wandering spirits not long for this Earth reminded me of another minimalist movie currently playing, Gus Van Sant‘s Cobain-but-not-really-Cobain-I-swear “Last Days.” But what Ichikawa grasps that Van Sant doesn’t seem to is that film can attain true spiritual discourse by simply surveying the corporeality of its characters; one needn’t ascend to martyrdom to palpate a truly tragic realm. In his proclaimed unofficial “trilogy,” Van Sant has essentially surveyed the walking dead — “Gerry“‘s withering macho men, “Elephant“‘s tragic tots, and now this bedraggled, death-shrouded iconic rock star — yet it always feels more conceptual than realized, forced onto tricky texts and undone by contradictory impulses (“Last Days”‘ reducing Cobain to a gasping bag of bones versus ascending him to literal rock-god heaven, “Elephant”‘s surveying of high school’s lovely dead-time versus making sociological motivational commentary). Perhaps what eludes Van Sant is here onscreen in “Tony Takitani,” which looks at its very human protagonists as mismanaged burnt-out shells yet also locates the implicit need for something more, something projected here onto endless rows of designer dresses and brand-name shoes, things as unknowable as human desire itself.
[ Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot, as well as an editor at Interview magazine and frequent contributor of Film Comment. ]