Saturday, July 18, 2009

Tony Takitani (Jun Ichikawa, 2004)

My article on one of the films screening in Japan Foundation's 2009 Eiga Sai Film Festival, from July to August, at venues in Baguio, Cebu, and the UP Film Center:

Mr. Lonely

Jun Ichikawa's Tony Takitani (2004) is a deceptively slight, spare film--at an hour and fifteen minutes, with a cast of two actors portraying four characters, with most of the film consisting of the camera moving sideways, or of either of the characters standing in various moody poses, it's about as minimal a film as one can have and still be called a motion picture.

Based on a short story by Haruki Murakami, the picture begins with a brief biographical sketch of Tony's father, Shozaburo Takitani (Issei Ogata, who also plays Tony). The rest of the picture follows Tony on his doomed trajectory in life, a trajectory pretty much determined by the oddly outlandish name given him by his jazz musician father (the man had acted on the suggestion of an American major). With such a name one can either be a dashing hero type, or an outcast so rejected by fellow Japanese children (who would be hostile to unusual names, especially those evoking the presence of their American conquerors) that one is condemned to a life of loneliness.

Then real tragedy strikes: Tony meets Eiko (Rie Miyazawa), and suddenly Tony isn't lonely anymore--feels in fact the vague yet unsettling fear that all who fall in love feel, that this sudden surge of emotion and affection might somehow end. It's not a bad marriage--Murakami won't let Tony (or us) off the hook that easily; Eiko turns out to be a wonderful housekeeper, and loving wife. But she had this one flaw--she loves to buy clothes, lots and lots of clothes. At one point (about the time when an entire room in their house is turned into an oversized walk-in closet) Tony suggests that perhaps she should stop.

And that's it; that's all there is to the story, and the film made around the story. But Ichikawa with tiny brushstrokes (as if painting an illustration inside a tiny snuff bottle) has in miniature created a closed-off world of mute, inexpressible suffering. Doesn't seem that way at first, but when you arrive at the film's equally quiet conclusion (not once does anyone raise his voice above a whisper--well, only once, and the actual event occurs offscreen) you find yourself startled, looking backwards at the inevitable series of steps that led you here.

I'd mentioned tiny bottle paintings and you can't help but think of such brushstrokes, watching this film; Ichikawa is fond of gliding his camera from left to right, when he doesn't have it locked down. Noel Murray in The A.V. Club calls it an "illustrated Murakami text"--a sharp observation that doesn't fully account for the leisurely yet perfect pacing (as if the movie were a daydream, or shot underwater); nor does it fully account for the director's Bressonian knack of looking at people and objects at oblique angles, through hands and shoes and hair (as if observing through sidelong glances), or through medium shots (as if gazing from a discreet distance). Manohla Dargis in The New York Times speculates that the left-to-right camera motion might have historical significance: Japanese used to be written from right to left, in vertical columns. "It's no wonder Tony often seems headed in the wrong direction," Dargis muses; several critics have compared the movement to the turning of the pages of a book. I'm more inclined to think of the movement as riparian, the flow of life made cinematic flesh, a series of irretrievable moments pushing past each other in an unstoppable current.

Mention the roomful of expensive clothes and hundred-plus shoes Eiko buys to any Filipino, and his thoughts must turn to our own world-class shopper, former Philippine First Lady Imelda Marcos. True, the scale of her shopping outclasses anything Ichikawa has the budget or inclination to depict (Mrs. Marcos abandoned around a thousand pairs of shoes when she fled the country), but tone is all and on those terms the stories of both ladies couldn't be more different: Ichikawa's is a whispered intimacy, while Mrs. Marcos' is a comic opera, full of grotesque details.

Ichikawa's style also causes critics to recall the minimalist storytelling of an earlier Japanese master, Yasujiro Ozu. Good call: Ozu confined himself to domestic situations, and his quiet voice can range anywhere from light slapstick to monumentally understated tragedy. But Ozu's style is wildly conventional, while Ichikawa embraces more commonplace notions of the experimental and avant-garde (am I making sense here?); Tony and Eiko's psychology verges on the abnormal, whereas Ozu's characters are relentlessly, fascinatingly ordinary (a far more difficult feat to pull off, I think).

I like to think Murakami and Ichikawa were just as if not more inspired by an earlier, equally short text, Herman Melville's "Bartleby, the Scrivener." Like Tony, Bartleby has the suggestion of a sad past; like Tony, Bartleby is invincibly surrounded by walls of alienation and loneliness. Unlike Bartleby, Tony has tasted something of love--but that makes his eventual fate all the more harrowing, a sudden fall after the depths and heights of feeling he has experienced.

Ichikawa adds a coda to Murakami's perfect little story, involving a phone and an annoying neighbor; one can call the addition lily-gilding, or seamless amplification of the man's sorrow (I think it's more of the latter, myself). Whatever; Tony Takitani is Ichikawa's testament to the power of minimalist cinema, how the slightest of narratives told in the most unassuming of manners can posses startlingly poignant power.

First published in
Businessworld, 7.3.09


Quentin Tarantado said...

A bit of clarification for readers of this review: I assume that Noel is talking about bottles we saw when we visited Taiwan in our childhood days. Craftsmen were painting pictures INSIDE dainty little bottles, passing their brushes through the narrow necks of bottles to paint miniature scenes. The idea is the painting is inside where it won't get rubbed off, but the execution looked fiendishly difficult and precise to pull off.

Noel Vera said...

Should have done this earlier, but put in a link explaining what I and my evil twin brother meant.

ADRIAN said...

Ichikawa made a minimalist gem, a melancholic film in its most destructive pace. The horizontal transitions are indicative of emptiness. I often associate horizontal transitions with death and melancholia. HORIZONTAL LINES are the most destructive lines in a painting.