Tony Takitani and the Japanese Art of Understatement

May 5, 2009


 When I first spied Tony Takitani on a record store shelf it was the words emblazoned upon the cover “from the story by HARUKI MURAKAMI” which caught my attention. In 2000, my fascination with Japan and its culture in mind (I had been set to go to Yokohama during those summer months; fate as it transpired took me on a different road) my parents gave me Norwegian Wood, written by the then lesser- known Japanese author. Little did they know the literary revolution they were bringing into my life. It was like nothing I’d read before, and only an encounter with  Beckett’s Endgame a short period after came close to resembling the strange, paradoxical feeling upon completion of utter disorientation coupled with beautiful, poetic fulfilment. I began to see the ‘Murakami’ in things: a sort of ‘back-to- front’ process when what I was discovering in actuality, were the writer’s influences. (I recall a similar sort of experience when, viewing Voyage dans la Lune in French class I could think only of the Smashing Pumpkins, as if indignant that Meliès preceded the age of MTV)  In any case, it’s easy to see the ‘Murakami’, or more accurately find the contributing influences to Murakami’s writing in many 20th century philosophical, literary and artistic movements. From Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett style hard- boiled fiction and Film Noir, to the Beat Generation, Existentialism, Surrealism and Western pop culture. However, despite this broad mélange of inspiration, at the heart of Murakami’s work is something inimitably Japanese. You can’t quite put your finger on it- it’s that ‘je ne sais quoi’ aspect of his story-telling which invokes a sense of ‘nonchalance’ – but this suggests a lack of concern, or laziness…and that’s not it, for Murakami’s is a deft art. Words don’t rush from the page to reach you in a whir of statement and drama in a Murakami novel. Instead they seem to share the same space like there was never a place more natural for them to be. Banal activities like cooking pasta acquire meditative purpose and like a Zen kōan his work begs for the suspension of conceptual thought in order for its truth to ‘flow’. Allow this to happen, and the return is something profound.

 Tony Takitani, directed by the late Jun Ichikawa, captures the unique qualities of Murakami’s writing and more than this- that subtle reticence, transferred to the screen with aesthetic perfection. For all his Western intertextual and stylistic references, I’m inclined to think Murakami could only ever have been adapted to the big screen by a Japanese director: for though his style often lends itself towards a Neo-Noir interpretation or even that of the quirky indie variety, that specific sense of the ‘understated’ in Murakami’s work is uniquely and inherently Japanese. I call it a Japanese art because I have never witnessed the utilisation of space, stillness and silence in quite the same, natural way.

 This sense of understatement permeates Japanese culture. In haiku poetry one must use only 17 syllables- or ‘on’ of the Japanese language, to evoke nature, transience and the deepest of human emotions. In the art world, it is the woodblock prints of the 18th and 19th centuries for which Japan is renowned. The very process of woodblock cutting involved attributing negative and positive spaces of colour. (See Ando Hiroshige’s “Oi,” #47 from the series “Sixty Nine Views of the Kisokaido” c.1839 for one of the bolder examples of negative- space manipulation)

Most notably in cinema, Yazujiro Ozu is renowned for his unique expression of stillness and space. Deleuze famously explored the notion of Ozu as an exponent of “opsigns and sonsigns” ; optical and sound images which are “read” rather than absorbed or reacted to, as we would do for an action image. Deleuze described these shots throughout Ozu’s work like “still lifes as the pure form of time.” They are “deconnected spaces” that “take on an autonomy which accords them an apparent value which is relative (in relation to a story), or consequential (once the action is done with). They reach the absolute, as instances of pure contemplation, and immediately bring about the identity of the mental and the physical, the real and the imaginary, the subject and the object, the world and the I.” (Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time Image)  

Deleuze’s theory gives us an insight into not just Ozu’s work but the autonomous and powerful function of space in Japanese aesthetics in general. More contemporary Japanese directors are often compared to Ozu and certainly not without due value, though I do wonder if these similarities can be traced to the inherent nature of Japanese aesthetics, which resound through every aspect of Japanese life. Mark Freeman has written a fantastic article comparing one of my favourite directors; Takeshi Kitano, with Ozu. The piece focuses upon Kitano’s Hana-bi and the resemblance of the film’s meditative spatial evocation to Ozu’s “concentration on scenographic space and emptiness.” (Kitano’s Hana-Bi and the Spatial Traditions of Yasujiro Ozu)  The comparison is an incredibly interesting one and merits a lot more time than I can attribute here, but I do recommend reading Freeman’s article at the above link.

 Tony Takitani fits easily within this paradigm of spatial composition; indeed Ichikawa excels at evoking both the protagonist’s deep loneliness and the characteristic ‘breathing space’ of Murakami’s writing through exquisite “shots comprised of blank spaces like Edward Hopper’s paintings” (from Jun Ichikawa’s ‘Director’s Memo’ on the Tony Takitani Official Website.) Ichikawa’s words strike of Deleuze’s “still lifes” but it’s Kitano to whom I find most resemblance in Takitani with its leaning towards the absurdist, the long poetic silences between dialogue, and the haunting, piano-based score throughout (composer Joe Hisaishi is Kitano’s long-term collaborator whilst film awards veteran Ryuichi Sakamoto provides the theme for Takitani)

Interestingly, Hidetoshi Nishijima who played the lead role in Kitano’s seminal Dolls, provides the narration throughout Tony Takitani. It’s a role he does well, fitting with the understated tone of the movie and the decision to create a third person narrative this way is an excellent choice by Ichikawa; providing the perfect vehicle by which to exhibit Murakami’s inimitable, poetic language. In fact, that Tony Takitani has been named “one of the finest adaptations of the work of a major writer ever brought to the screen” is something I’m inclined with which to agree. For, to hark back to my original point, the reasons why this adaptation is so compellingly successful, I feel lie cemented in the shared emphasis of a very Japanese aesthetic, and that is one of ‘understatement’. There’s a word in Japanese; “yūgen” which seems to illuminate this concept. Often used in the context of Japanese aesthetics, alongside terms such as “wabi-sabi”, it remains as equally difficult to translate given its abstract nature. Its approximate meaning however, equates with “subtly profound grace, not obvious.”

Yūgen or understatement is something so eminently present in Murakami’s work it took someone adept in recognising and applying this to engage in adapting his story. Jun Ichikawa is that person and from reducing the colour tone of the film to using one stage and the same two actors to play all 4 main roles, it’s clear that he has made every effort to evoke the understatement of Murakami’s world; a world which he himself describes as “solid but… nonetheless floating a few centimetres off reality’s ground”

Tony Takitani is truly sublime; an achievement which stands cinematically on its own two feet, with Ichikawa proving an insightful and gifted director. However, it is as an adaptation that it achieves the extraordinary; translating the essentially untranslatable in Murakami’s writing: the subtlety, the “yūgen”, to a visual, aural medium. And that is why this remains, a distinctly Japanese work of art.   



One Response to “Tony Takitani and the Japanese Art of Understatement”

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