Haruki Murakami’s short story “Tony Takitani” has been turned into a lovely, fragile film by writer-director Jun Ichikawa—as far as I know, no relation to the great Kon Ichikawa. It is a film about contemporary loneliness and the toll it takes, the way it can be allowed to govern one’s life. Indeed, this perceptive and sensitive piece of work, which runs for about an hour and a quarter (a refreshing circumstance in itself), shows how certain individuals help create their own loneliness in order, paradoxically, to counter it by filling the empty spaces—material, emotional, spiritual—in their lives. Too, they are driven to empty those spaces, recreating their loneliness, in order to assert or recapture their integrity, and because, ironically, in the midst of an alienating modern world a solitudinous state, which, theoretically at least, need not be lonely, is the place or space they feel most comfortable inhabiting.
If there is a consensus “greatest movie of all time” among cineastes, it is probably Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941). I have described this film as “[summing] up as waste the crammed life of a newspaper magnate, who, disconnected from family and his own past, ‘buys things.’ . . . [The film] haunts and astounds, as in the case of the closing visual pun in which a man’s whole life going up in smoke, preceded by a sweeping crane shot of Kane’s accumulated stuff—an apotheosis of American material obsessiveness filling loneliness.” The protagonist of Tony Takitani isn’t American; he is Japanese. He isn’t a newspaper tycoon; he is a highly successful commercial artist. But he is not unrelated to Americanism, as indeed contemporary Japan isn’t unrelated to the American materialistic mania. Takitani’s father named him Tony during the U.S. occupation of Japan, following World War II, in order to better negotiate his own interactions—and, by extension, those of his son—with Americans. The name signifies Japan’s attempt to make inroads into the successful materialistic ideology that presumably helped defeat Japan in the war, undermining Japan’s commitment to family—throughout their lives, Tony and his father almost never see one another and barely speak to one another when they do—and bankrupting its Buddhist soul. Tony has grown up to embody the cultural dislocation of Japan that the victorious U.S. military ruthlessly imposed on it.
As it happens, Tony’s father, Shozaburo Takitani, did not fight in the war. He fled to Shanghai—a move that enables both the story and the film to disassociate him from Japanese imperialism. The Chinese imprisoned Shozaburo—keep in mind that Japan had invaded China—but, for some reason, did not execute him, as they did other Japanese prisoners. Nevertheless, Shozaburo lived in his bare cell, sleeping on floor, with one companion: the constant fear that, come two in the afternoon, he would be executed. Eventually he was released and sent packing for home, in his case, Tokyo. He married; his wife bore Tony, three days after which she died, leaving Tony motherless. Shozaburo, a trombonist in an itinerant jazz band, left his son in the care of a housekeeper when he was on the road, which was most of the time. We grasp that Shozaburo’s roving activity is meant to counter the haunting experience of his Chinese confinement, much as the stupendous record collection he amasses is meant to fill the empty space in his psyche, the haunting memory of which derives from his Chinese prison cell, an emotional space now deepened by the death of his wife.
Tony thus grows up, in effect, both fatherless and motherless; once he, not his father, dismisses the housekeeper, the young boy is alone and more or less on his own. Self-sufficiency becomes the hallmark of the boy’s character, while his dependency on materialistic perception provides some sort of balance. Let me explain. The kind of illustrator that Tony becomes copies from reality in minute detail; although financially successful, he is a second- or third-rate artist whose work owes nothing to inspiration, imagination or ideology. He confesses that he doesn’t even comprehend any art other than the highly limited kind he executes. We watch him at work on a fastidious drawing of a leaf, but what most draws his attention are devices and machines. He is an impersonal artist, a copycat. Why, though? The scientific, materialistic concentration that this kind of art requires to create fills the empty space of Tony’s intense loneliness. Its motive, then, is the same as his father’s in moving about with his band. But while his father’s activity reflected his wartime experience and the U.S. occupation afterwards, Tony’s reflects the aftermath of, the inheritance from, those events. It is a reflection, then, of the hollow thing that Japan has become through its Americanization and its embrace of soulless capitalism.
Tony marries. He and his wife get along perfectly but for one flaw he detects in Konuma Eiko (in the story, actually, the character goes unnamed), like the birthmark on Georgiana’s cheek in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s marvelous story about Puritanical (and scientific) obsessiveness, “The Birthmark.” Tony’s wife buys things—in particular, designer clothes and shoes. A gigantic walk-in closet is filled with her enormous collection of glamorous stuff. Konuma, too, is filling an empty space in a fruitless attempt to ward off loneliness. She shares the same “habitual solitude” that marks her husband and her father-in-law; but, missing the connection, Tony, like Aylmer in the Hawthorne story, proceeds to try to remove the “mark” from her. He counsels Konuma that her endless buying has to stop. It isn’t the cost that motivates Tony; sincerely loving his wife, he simply wants her to stop acting in a way that he feels is deleterious to her mental health. Konuma agrees with her spouse. On her way home from returning to a store some recently bought items, however, she is killed in a road accident. Failing to recognize his wife’s loneliness, Tony is thus punished by his own, now made all the worse by the absence of his wife, his principal bulwark against loneliness.
Both the story and the film may go too far when Tony hires a secretary for his studio and stipulates that she wear his deceased wife’s clothes to help him get over his loss of her. Tony himself thinks better of this weird proposal and discharges Hisako (also unnamed in the story) before she has started at the job, telling her to keep the two weeks’ apparel that she had selected and borrowed. Tony finally empties his wife’s closet, getting rid of the clothes, much as he had disposed of his father’s pile of record albums following Shozaburo’s death. Like Citizen Kane, this is a film about losses and loss, and about the emptying of material spaces the filling of which only minimally mitigated, if at all, the empty emotional and spiritual spaces that were correlative to them. Ichikawa achieves a stunning thematic unity by showing Tony lying on the floor of his deceased wife’s emptied closet, his back to the camera, and inserting a previous shot of his father, now also deceased, lying on the floor of his Chinese prison cell, his back to the camera. Perhaps at this point I should add that the same actor, Issei Ogata, plays both Shozaburo and Tony Takitani, much as the same actress, Rie Miyazawa, plays both Konuma and Hisako. All in all, it was probably a mistake that the film, rather than ending with this powerful shot, continues past the point of Murakami’s ending, adding largely extraneous stuff, including Tony’s encounter at an exhibit with Konuma’s boyfriend from the time before the marriage, who denounces Tony as a dull artist, and Tony’s self-aborted phone call to Hisako, in another attempt to assuage his loneliness that might also have assuaged hers. (Or is the English translation, by Harvard professor Jay Rubin, that appeared in the New Yorker a few years back an abridgement?) Tony thus exemplifies, perhaps, sadly, for all time, hikkikomori—the retreat into oneself, popular among young Japanese people today, that Ichikawa, who is what we would call a baby boomer, has expressed concern about.
This is a gentle film; despite my efforts to contextualize the material, there is no anti-Americanism evident in the film, and the only abrasive notes that are struck come at the end, when Ichikawa (presumably) extends Murakami’s story. Ichikawa has lit upon a brilliant method for underscoring and developing the theme of impersonality. He employs an omniscient voiceover whose utterances are interrupted and completed by characters in the film, principally, Tony. This strategy also conveys the disconnects in these people’s lives—from themselves, one another, traditional Japanese family feeling and other aspects of Japanese culture.
But, of course, this film, like any other, must rise or fall on its visual aspect. No one will find Tony Takitani wanting in this regard. Aided by his art director, Yoshikazu Ichida, his cinematographer, Taishi Hirokawa, and his cutter, Tomoh Sanjo, Ichikawa has given his film an expressive, rather than a decorative, visual form. I have already described the sequence of shots of son and father lying on the floor of a bare, confined space—a wonderful, concise thematic encapsulation. (Are you as tired as I of the meaningless shots with which so many “big” Hollywood productions are inundated?) You should also know that Ichikawa has “decolorized” the print, that is, “tone[d] down the color,” he explains, to “attempt to answer demands brought about by Murakami’s literary world, which may be solid but is nonetheless floating a few centimeters off reality’s ground.” This strategy helps us to draw from the material on the screen the sort of generalizations I have made; the “decolorization” moves us away from a narrow consideration, say, of Tony’s relationships with father, wife and himself to a wider consideration of aspects of current Japanese culture. (Similarly, Tony’s habit of scratching his feet suggests a feeling of his that he shares with many others nowadays, that he is uncertain of his own reality and must therefore test now and then for its confirmation.) Let me also add that this visual process, by its slightly ethereal aspect, everywhere implies the spirituality that is missing from the lives of these characters and, by extension, from Japanese culture today.
What most distinguishes Ichikawa’s achievement, however, is the way he portrays interior spaces, both when they are filled and when they are emptied or empty, since this is our principal means for arriving at the film’s delicate feeling and rich thematic intent. Ichikawa has said he drew upon canvases by Edward Hopper, the American realist painter, to convey the sense of lonely or solitudinous beings in a spare, confined or enclosed space—and, if you are familiar with Hopper’s paintings, you will not doubt Ichikawa’s word. See, for instance, Summer Evening (1947), which is out of doors, on an enclosed porch, where the man is turned toward the woman but she is facing ahead, thus isolating her companion in his own adjacent space by isolating herself—to all of which the porch, along with its separation from the glimpsed indoors, is correlative; or Sun in an Empty Room (1963), where, for Ichikawa’s purposes, the empty room has become an emptied room.
Tony Takitani’s exploration of contemporary Japanese loneliness is deeply affecting—and distressing. Ichikawa has succeeded at making his individuals representative of a current crisis in Japanese culture and society. For how long can a people keep at their unimaginative work, keeping to themselves and starving their souls? Seemingly forever, to judge by our own example. At what price, though? At what price!
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