Jun Ichikawa’s Tony Takitani is an elegant little film, and one of the most emotionally resonant movies I’ve seen this year. Based on a story by the popular Japanese author Haruki Murakami that was published in the New Yorker in 2002, the characters and narrative are so lightly sketched, the film’s gravity sneaks up on the viewer, largely through the gradual force of its form and rhythm.
The film opens by evoking the carefree lifestyle of Tony Takitani’s father, Shozaburo, a jazz musician who lives in Shanghai during World War II, endures prison, returns to Japan and marries, but becomes a widower shortly after Tony’s birth. Tony (whose odd American name was the result of a drunken suggestion) is socially marginalized almost from the get-go and his musician father is rarely around during his formative years.
Tony (Issei Ogata) compensates by turning inward and away–he becomes an exceptionally talented draftsman specializing in realism, replication, and mechanical accuracy, and he emotionally keeps to himself, never recognizing his own loneliness until mid-life, when he meets an attractive client (Rie Miyazawa). The rest of the story describes his varied responses to this event and his potential transformation through the love, life, and hardships that ensue.
Seemingly the entire film is shot with long lenses that flatten the visual space and reduce the depth of field, and director Ichikawa emphasizes figures seated in front of large windows that reveal a blurry neighborhood or cityscape beyond their reach. The film’s compositions fragment the space, evoking a studied, sterile milieu that the soft light and desaturated colors imbue with a deeply-felt melancholy. It’s a lucid expression of contemporary isolation and loneliness, and Ichikawa’s recurring tracking shots (repeatedly moving from left to right) establish a pattern of scene transitions that suggest the inexorable flow of time.
But if this visual style alone had defined the film, it might have overpowered its delicate dramaturgy. Instead, Ichikawa offers subtle counterpoint by incorporating an omniscient narrator who reads Murakami’s text, and a playful touch–moments when the characters continue the film’s narration as if lost in private reveries. The way the film develops a rhythm between narration, image, dialogue, and Ryuichi Sakamoto’s minimalist piano score, is tender and thoughtful, and lends the film the rhetorical uplift of a fable. It’s a beautiful example of literary adaptation, with the text remaining cohere and independent but smoothly coexisting with the sounds and images, amplifying their meaning. (Ichikawa’s screenplay also adheres to Murakami’s story while offering his own coda.)
Surprisingly for a film as spare as this, I feel I’ve only scratched the surface of its lingering reverberations. (I also think it’s a mistake to reveal too much of the plot, as many reviewers have done.) There is much here about inner voids and attachments, analytical and emotional paradigms, private prisons and releases, a merging of Western and Eastern values. But discovering and exploring these shadings is what makes the film so pleasurable and expansive; while they’re tempting to elucidate, I’ve seen the film twice and to be honest, I’m not positive the inflections are solidly there, anyway. Yet few recent films have challenged me to consider their implications with greater conviction. It’s not the film’s particulars that remain in the memory, but its quiet, potent yearnings.