[Sorry, I missed one. --Ed.]
What a lovely little film this is. Based on a Haruki Murakami short story, and clocking in at a mere 75 minutes, this minimalist gem carries a surprising amount of emotional weight.
The opening ten minutes provide the backstory for our oddly-named protagonist. Takitani Shozaburo is a Japanese jazz trombone player who was captured in China during World War II. After the war he returns to Japan, marries, and the following year the couple has a son. The boy’s mother dies soon after he is born, and Shozaburo gives him the Americanized name Tony, liking the sound of it.
Tony’s father continues to travel as a musician, and Tony grows up basically alone; among other things his Western name is a hindrance to the development of friendships. But he likes to draw, and eventually becomes an accomplished illustrator, one who excels at drawing cars and machines, but whose work shows little emotion despite its technical skill.
This prelude to Tony’s story is told largely via voiceover narration and a series of brief visual vignettes, during which the camera remains mostly static within each scene, but pans from scene to scene directly from left-to-right like in a slide show. These movements mark the passage of time, as in the technique in older films of having calendar pages flip or be blown off by the wind. At first this technique may seem a little forced and perhaps distracting, but as you settle in with it and the film progresses it becomes quite fitting and natural to the way in which director Jun Ichikawa tells the story.
After this prelude we see Tony as a successful technical artist, still alone in early middle age. One day he meets a pretty young client, and after a time he asks her out. They go on a few dates, seemingly hitting it off, and Tony proposes. Surprisingly, the girl, Eiko, agrees to think about it, and eventually says yes. They marry, but not long afterwards, and despite their apparent happiness, Tony finds out something disturbing about his new bride: she buys an “alarming number” of designer clothes.
Eventually Tony and Eiko talk about this obsession of Eiko’s, and she agrees to cut back. But an obsession is an obsession, this one takes a tragic turn, and again Tony finds himself faced with the possibility of being alone. His attempts to deal with this make up the remainder of the story.
The overall feel of this film is that of a fable, or even a sort of visual poem. Dialogue is sparse – most of the story is told by the conjunction of the narration and the visuals, and the narration itself has the matter-of-fact quality of a folktale. Issey Ogata, who plays both Tony and his father, and who is better known in Japan as a comedian and comic actor, captures both Tony’s lonely world-weariness and his hope perfectly. It’s a quietly wonderful performance. And Rie Miyazawa, who plays both Eiko and another girl, Hisako, that Tony meets later in the film, plays both of these quite different girls so well that only the credits give away the fact that it’s the same actress.
The score, by Ryuichi Sakamoto, is sparse too – all solo piano, made up of haunting melancholy themes for the most part, but punctuated occasionally by the more upbeat, almost jazzy moments that accompany the film’s brighter scenes.
On a surface level, then, the whole thing seems very simple. But the excellent understated performances, the uncomplicated storytelling, and the visual poetry combine in a way which makes Tony Takitani deeper and richer than it appears. And the gentle touch of irony with which the film ends is perfect. Ultimately what we have here is a jewel of small beauty -- a fine poetic meditation on life and loneliness, love and memory.
—Rob Grano has a degree in religious studies which he's put to good use working on the insurance side of the healthcare industry for the past 20 years. He's published a number of book and music reviews, mostly in the small press, and sometimes has even gotten paid for it. He lives outside of Pittsburgh, Pa.