"She wore her clothes with such naturalness and grace that she could have been a bird that had enveloped itself in a special wind as it prepared to fly off to another world."
That is a line from Haruki Murakami's short story Tony Takitani. Murakami is probably Japan's most popular modern novelist. Most of his tales, from The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle to Wild Sheep Chase, involve longing and love, beer, jazz, and are seeped in surrealism and Murakami's gifted turn of phrase. His stories often inhabit their own magical realist world and his descriptions are so mood oriented that adapting him to the screen is a formidable task. Film maker Jun Ichikawa (Tokyo Lullaby, Osaka Story, Tokyo Marigold) succeeds with his 2004 adaptation of Tony Takitani largely because Ichikawa almost sticks to Murakami's writing word for word.
Issei Ogata (Yi Yi, The Sun) plays both Tony Takatani and his father. Tony Takatani's father is a jazz musician. Born in the early days of Japan's post WW2 era, Tony's father decides that bestowing an American name on his son might be a good idea. Tony's mother dies three days after his birth. His free-spirited father really only has passion for jazz and he leaves young Tony with the housekeeper while he tours around with his band. Tony becomes a very isolated child and self sufficient enough that before he is a teenager, they get rid of the housekeeper and Tony is left completely alone for long stretches.
Tony shows a strong talent for drawing. He excels at art school, though his teacher and classmates note that he is purely technical and is unable to comprehend any form of expressive or abstract art. He becomes an in demand illustrator for ad campaigns and magazines. He is successful but alone, never really seeking out relationships until one day Kunamo Eiko (Rie Miyazawa- Peony Pavilion, Twilight Samurai) walks into the office. He is smitten.
Though they have a fifteen year age gap, the prove to be a good match and they marry. Tony often becomes consumed by the thought of losing her. Where being alone was once easy for him, with her in his life, it now seems unimaginable. The only bump they have in their relationship is Eiko's obsession with clothing. It is a compulsion for her, and they convert one entire room into a closet for her designer finery. Tony and Eiko agree that is a problem, an addiction, and Eiko agrees to cut back, though it proves to be painful for her.
But, Tony's worst fears come to pass when Eiko dies in an accident. Tony hires a new assistant, the financially struggling Hisako (again, Rie Miyazawa), and proposes that she wear his wife's clothes, just for awhile in order to aide him through the grieving process.
Short story=Short film. Clocking in at one hour and fifteen minutes, it is measured perfectly and, though the story is very simple, you don't feel shortchanged. Ozu-inspired director Jun Ichikawa is a very minimalist film maker, but here he scales things back even further, keeping to very restrained long shots, mainly fixed camera but every so often slowly pans from left to right across barren sets. Seriously, it is almost the cinematic equivalent of a Robert Ryman painting. The film is the model standard of delicate and precise cinema. Maybe a little too precise.
The characters barely speak. Most of the spoken word is handled by a narrator, who, at times, finds his sentences completed when the characters chime in. All of this voice over is pretty much, word for word, passages from the source story. Cinematically the use of voice over was a novel idea and an interesting way to convey the stories theme of alienation. Tony is not someone who stifled his emotions or human contact as much as it just didn't occur to him that he was lonely, that he thought there was another way to be other than alone. The films big message is that when he does finally have an epiphany to share his life with someone else, there is that accompanied fear of losing that person. He flirts with the idea of replacing his wife, of filling the clothes that she so loved, but of course, materials do not make the person. Though the aesthetic of the film almost uses them like wistful window dressing, Issei Ogata and Rie Miyazawa prove to be a perfectly matched pair (though Ogata is older then the late 30's Tony in the original story).
One of the real problems with sticking so closely (too closely) to the short story, is that it is a bit one note. A story that is a few pages long can hit on a single key emotion and be fine but a film tends to need a few more layers. Unfortunately Ichikawa keeps the mood intensely focused and singularly melancholy. So, despite what might be going on in the characters lives (like his happy marriage to Eiko), there is always this sense of looming alienation. Murakami fans will want to note that Ichikawa does veer from the source material at the end- implying that Tony's feelings for Hisako were somehow deeper and an added scene where Tony runs into one of Eiko's ex-boyfriends. Feels like a negligable mistep in an otherwise neat little film.
The DVD: Geneon, Region 2.
Picture: Anamorphic Widescreen. Now, for this one I had to do some digging. The image is soft, you see, and as much as it seems to be intentional I still wondered wether it was too soft. But, it seems that Ichikawa really was aiming for this look, giving the film a gauzy haze that reflects the overall emotional tone. Visually, the film is a wonderfully cold marvel of hazy images, soaked in fine grain, with color hues leeched of their warmer leanings so everything is very chilly. Every scene looks like it was filmed on a misty November morning in the Pacific Northwest. So, keeping that in mind, the film is grainy, the contrast is not very deep, and likewise, the sharpness keeps to the muted look of the film. Technically it appeared pretty solid with no glaring transfer or compression artefacts other than some slight edge enhancement.
Sound: PCM 2.0 Stereo, Japanese language with optional English subtitles. Really, this is the kind of film that doesn't need the 5.1 push. The soundtrack is very simple, but effective. Dialogue is clear. Subs are fine. The piano score is very rich, but again, like the rest of the film, emotionally one note.
Extras: First of all the DVD is housed in a thick suitcase. An 8 page (Japanese text only) booklet contains what appears to be extensive text bios on the actors and director.— Disc one: Trailer— This edition contains a second disc of extras. NOTE: *None of the extras have English subtitles.*— "Making Of" Featurette (1 hour, 7 mins).— Interviews with Jun Ichikawa, Rie Miyazawa, and Issei Ogata (49:38)— Roundtable interview (12:41) and press screening interview (12:00) with the cast and Ichikawa.
Conclusion: Well, there are usually two reasons to import a title. One: it just is not available in your country and wont be anytime soon. Two: the other region release is superior to your countries release. Well, word is Tony Takitani will be coming out in the US on DVD, apparently, in January 2006. So we can eliminate number one but, since the disc hasn't come out yet, we cannot rule out number two. It is a judgement call. You can be brave and spend the extra bucks on this import, get a good transfer and some nifty packaging, or you can wait it out for the region one release and hope it has some good extras and a similar transfer. I'd say most people are going to wait it out. $50 is a lot for any disc, much less for one where you cannot enjoy the extras unless you are fluent in Japanese. So, I'll give it a hesitant recommended and remind you all again to bear in mind that Reg 1 release around the bend.