This is the first part in a short series of reviews of Murakami adaptations, and contains slight spoilers for both the short story and film adaptation of “Tony Takitani”. I would recommend either reading or watching before reading this. Thank you.
Published in The New Yorker in April 2002, “Tony Takitani” isn’t one of Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami’s better-known stories – unlike his most famous works, it hasn’t found itself into one of his short story collections, and isn’t long enough to have the cultural impact afforded to his novels. However, the story was made slightly more famous when it was adapted into film two years after its publication by Japanese director Jun Ichikawa.
In this small series of essays, I will be looking at three adaptations of Murakami short stories; Jun Ichikawa’s Tony Takitani, Lee Chang-dong’s Burning and Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car, in order to see how they deal with the writer’s distinctive prose and style, and the ways in which these directors attempt to translate him onto the screen. In doing so, we can hopefully find out something about the nature of adaptation in itself; its challenges and rewards.
Ichikawa’s adaptation of Tony Takitani is a good place to start when discussing Murakami adaptations, not only because it’s one of the earliest, but also because it helpfully demonstrates some of the pitfalls of adapting an author like Murakami.
Although Murakami has written a handful of critically acclaimed novels, it’s his short stories that most intrigue me. In these, without the luxury of space, Murakami’s worst impulses are curtailed, and the better parts of his style are condensed. Each reads like a separate urban myth, a small tale that encapsulates some essential weirdness of life, like a story overheard in parts during a conversation. It’s a style that lends itself well to adaptation, as his shorts are full of blanks waiting to be filled in by the reader, or given extra depth to by a careful director.
Of his shorts, Tony Takitani reads the most like an obituary of a person that neither the writer nor the reader has ever met. Murakami’s prose would never be described as being particularly interior focused, but even acknowledging that, Tony Takitani is a short story that encapsulates a whole life into the span of only a handful of pages – a couple of which are devoted to the life of Tony Takitani’s father, rather than the man himself.
Apparently inspired by a slogan on a T-shirt that Murakami bought on holiday, Tony Takitani recounts the life of its titular character – a Japanese illustrator who has been alone since his birth. With a dead mother and an absent father, Tony Takitani fends for himself, his meticulous but lifeless illustration a reflection of a life devoid of love or feeling. One day, he meets and falls in love with his wife, who is addicted to shopping for designer clothes. Her addiction is so severe, it leads to her death, and a return to loneliness for Tony Takitani. By the end of the short story, not much has changed for Tony. The room that was once home to his wife’s clothes becomes home to his father’s records, which he then sells. The final line of the story reads;
“Once the records had disappeared from his house, Tony Takitani was really alone.”
In adapting the story to screen, Jun Ichikawa takes an extremely faithful approach. Much of the short story is read out to the viewer in the form of a narration by Hidetoshi Nishijima (who we will encounter again later in this series). Nishijima’s dryly read narration is a kind of crutch for the film to fall back on and is probably the key reason for the film’s overall failure of adaptation. The role of narration in films has always been a divisive topic, but there’s no question that the wisely used narrator can add a kind of depth that images and acting will never be able to fully express. The problem with narration of the kind used here is that it can often be used over expressing the same actions and emotions more effectively with the language of cinema.
Take, for example, the opening scenes of Tony Takitani. When the film opens, we see two scenes from Takitani’s childhood that flow into each other using a kind of lateral tracking shot that quickly becomes a signature of the film’s cinematographic style. Those lateral tracking shots represent a perfect way of telling a story like Tony Takitani; one that, at least at the beginning, has to get through a large amount of the main character’s life. Through them, we get the impression of the film as a kind of scrolling tapestry of a life, seeing the main character only in snapshots, passing through only the moments in Tony’s life that a detached tour-guide deems important.
However, immediately after those two scenes, we transition into the life of Tony’s father Shozaburo Takitani, told through a series of still images and Nishijima’s flat narration. Here, the film ceases to feel like a film, and becomes almost like a reading of the story, with a musical accompaniment (beautifully composed by Ryuichi Sakamoto.) Even much of the dialogue written for the film feels like background noise, not meant to be listened too carefully – it doesn’t move the plot along nor further an understanding of the character’s emotional states, instead leaving that all to the narration.
The approach of fidelity to the source text as taken by Ichikawa isn’t necessarily a poor one, but with a story like Tony Takitani, it certainly seems to be the path of most resistance. Attempting to emulate the bland prose of the original story in cinema requires a level of distance in the framing that is often off-putting and occasionally boring. While it could be argued that it does a good job of replicating the character’s loneliness and isolation, adding in elements like the Shozaburo story don’t really contribute to this effect, leaving them feeling out of place.
The effect of the original story is one that should cause a moment of some reflection in the viewer. Bland prose and thinly sketched details, as provided to us by Murakami, are utilised to allow the reader time to fill in the cracks for themselves. It’s a technique of omission that works slightly differently in prose than it does in cinema. The ability of prose to represent years of a person’s life in a single sentence is something that is much harder to achieve in cinema.
Take, for example, the character of Tony’s wife, named Eiko in the film, but nameless in the short story. Eiko is obsessed with designer clothes – she can’t pass by a store without buying something, and it’s her obsession that leads to her tragic demise. In the short story, Eiko’s life with Tony takes up around two pages total – it’s a moment in his life that is there to emphasise Takitani’s loneliness, and her designer clothes obsession feels like a (probably somewhat sexist) joke. But in leaving it so open, Murakami invites the viewer to question the narrative. We’re told only the facts – we have to assume the rest.
In the film, Eiko is suddenly literalised. We can see her, watch her shop – suddenly, by virtue of the camera and the actress, Eiko is no longer a concept, but a person. Here, Ichikawa must make a choice of adaptation. Does he bestow Eiko with more than she was given in the original (e.g. give her a reason for shopping so much), or does he continue to leave her obtuse, as it says in the text? Of course, he leaves her obtuse. Eiko feels almost emptier in the film version – Murakami describes her as having a “fever” when she shops, but Ichikawa doesn’t even show her face while shopping – to do so would be too much commitment – it would require either Ichikawa or the actress playing Eiko to give Eiko an expression, an ounce of humanity. So Ichikawa takes only what he can from the text, and shoots a scene of Eiko shopping where you can only see the lower half of her body.
Here, we see the worst of both worlds – Ichikawa doesn’t bring more to the text, he just provides it an image that will neither add to it nor contradict it, but instead just literalise it. Now, the audience is robbed from what they had as a reader (the ability to imagine the place, imagine Eiko shopping etc), and given nothing back as a viewer (insightful details, moments of characterisation through the actress’ facial expressions, something visual to read into).
I don’t want to come across as saying that cinema needs to show the viewer everything – only that for a film to succeed as an adaptation, it should at least try to use to cinematic toolkit to enhance the original, otherwise the whole thing comes across more like a dramatic reading of Tony Takitani rather than a cinematic adaptation of Tony Takitani.
Let’s take a look at one scene where the film does manage to enhance on the emotions of the story. In the scene after Eiko dies, we see Tony alone in a room. The music has cut out, and while we don’t see Tony’s face, we can tell he’s crying. The sound of a clock grows louder and louder; a seeming representation of the encroaching return of the loneliness that Tony struggled so hard to avoid by marrying Eiko. The short story is so distant from Tony that it can’t really show any kind of emotion – the reader has to do the work there by bringing their own. But here, the film elicits emotion by using cinematic distance – we see Tony crying in real time, but the camera keeps us at arm’s length, and Tony isolated in the frame. Here, finally, we can see a benefit of adapting this story – something it can bring that Murakami couldn’t give.
To fend off comments that I think Tony Takitani is a terrible film, I would like to say some words in Ichikawa’s defence. The film has been mentioned by directors such as Kogonada as an inspiration, and there’s an appealing sparsity to the set design and the soundtrack that shows that Ichikawa had a particular vision and reason for adapting this story. In its commitment to creating a mood of loneliness, I might be tempted to say that Tony Takitani is a success. In fact, its visual design is so in sync with the mood of the story that an edition of Murakami’s short was published that included images from the film to accompany it.
The problem is that Ichikawa can’t help himself but adapt Murakami faithfully. He can only add to it in the things that Murakami couldn’t have control over – set design, music, cinematography etc. Whenever Murakami’s story can take control, Ichikawa lets it, and the effect ends up wasting the potential of both artists.
Tony Takitani, then, is a classic example of one of the key mistakes made by those in the process of adaptation – fidelity to the source over all else. In this sense, the film is more like an expansion to the short story – adding imagery, but careful to not have its own sense of identity. When the final shots of the film roll on, and Ichikawa’s meditative style is able to breathe without narration, it’s hard not to wish Tony Takitani had been allowed to be more.
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