Whenever people tell me they cannot watch a particular movie because it is “depressing,” I wonder if what they really mean is that it is profoundly emotional in a way that they don’t know how to deal with because most movies do not traffic in such emotions. For me, the only depressing movies are bad ones—they’re depressing because they’re not interested in really showing us what movies can be capable of at their best. Tony Takitani is a great and sad movie, but not a depressing one, because it knows exactly what it wants to do and how to do it.
The film is an adaptation of a short story by Haruki Murakami, one of Japan’s few contemporary authors to achieve great success outside of his home country. Most of his novels have been translated into English and received with acclaim, and they are worth the praise: not long ago I finished reading The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and when I have a few less DVDs clamoring for my attention I plan to write about it. Like all the best writers, it’s difficult to distill into only a few words what makes him special—he writes about ordinary people doing ordinary things, and then drops all of them into strangely magical circumstances that change everything.
Takitani begins not with the Tony of the title, but his father. In stills and a few motion shots, we see that Tony’s father was a jazz musician, a sometime criminal who fled to China during WWII to avoid responsibility for his actions and returned to find Tokyo firebombed into rubble. He named his son Tony on the suggestion of an American serviceman, without thinking of how giving the boy such a name would affect him. This was decades before such things were cool, of course, and so the young Tony finds himself at arm’s length from everyone—but the movie finds a peculiar way to suggest, visually and in other ways that a synopsis will not do justice to, that he is most comfortable with that.
The boy grows into a man. The man finds work as a commercial illustrator, more comfortable drawing pictures of machines than people. One day he brings in a female assistant, and he finds himself curiously smitten by her: “I’ve never seen anyone who inhabits her clothes with such obvious relish as you,” he says to her. What a strange way to praise someone: she inhabits her clothes with relish. But it’s exactly the sort of language Murakami uses in his writing, too: he is fascinated by people who are forced to resort to extraordinary ways of talking about experiences they simply cannot fathom. Love is to this man—in the words of Gregory Corso—as odd as wearing shoes, and he tells himself that he has finally found a pair that fit. She, too, replies in kind: “I feel like they fill up what’s missing inside me.”
These words become prophetic. She is only too happy to admit that she likes to indulge herself, that she spends almost all her money on clothes. Maybe she has something to “teach” him, he rationalizes; maybe we can complete each other in some way, even if he is fifteen years older than her and in many ways totally unsuited to being a husband or a father. He cannot bear the idea of her turning him down, because it would be better to not live than to have to go back to being lonely. But she does marry him, and for a time everything seems absolutely right—at least until he becomes paralyzed again with the fear of being abandoned. “Loneliness is like a prison,” the narrator murmurs at one point, and many who have been in prison sometimes can’t deal with life on the outside again.
Her shopping habits grow more voracious, and Tony resigns himself to simply accepting this as a fact of their marriage—yes, even after they convert a whole room of their house into a giant walk-in closet for her. Why? Because this man is terrified, I said to myself, so terrified of losing her that he will tolerate any exasperation on her part, no matter what the cost to his own spirit. Then there is a tragedy, one which sharply changes the direction of the film—and which I won’t discuss in detail here, but it serves over time to further express the depth of Tony’s loneliness. We see how, like his wife, he has become shaped by his need, and in ways he is apparently helpless to acknowledge or predict.
Almost every shot in the film is exactly the same. It begins with the camera behind something or blocked by something, dollies from left to right, and watches the goings-on from a distance through a zoom lens. The action feels foreshortened, flattened-out; the actors are like ants moving through a colony sandwiched between panes of glass. And then, after a few moments, the camera dollies right and into blackness once more. Many shots seem to have no rear wall, or take place in an odd sort of limbo: there will be a window or a doorway through which we can see the whole rest of the world, as if he was living in a place where construction had been abandoned partway through. The net effect is saddening and powerful: we walk in, observe this man in his pain and loneliness, and then walk on out again.
Takitani—and his own father—are both played by Issei Ogata, an actor I have only seen once before (in Edward Yang’s wonderful Yi Yi). His face is craggy and sad—automatically sad, the kind of sad where you don’t need to act, and where the more he holds back the more there seem to be coming through. Rie Miyazawa, too, plays a dual role—the less said about which, the better, but this is not a gimmick film about dual personalities. I’ve seen her as far back in her career as Basara: The Princess Goh and as recently as Twilight Samurai, and she’s one of those women who can effortlessly project both happiness and anxiety—perfect for a role like this, where her character(s) sometimes evince both at once.
The director, Jun Ichikawa, has directed over a dozen other films in Japan, none of which seem to have earned a release here. Most of them have been quite and intimate looks at the lives of ordinary Tokyoites, and if any of them have the silent impact of Tony Takitani then they will be more than worth seeking out. For now, we have this movie, and it deserves as broad an audience as it can find.
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