Walking out of the theater after viewing Tony Takitani was like waking from a dream. It felt like I had been in the theater for much longer than the film's 75 minute running time, and it took me most of the drive home to pull my head out of the film and reorient myself. The film, adapted from the short novel of the same name by Haruki Murakami, is like a fine wine that lingers on the taste buds long after you sip it, its flavor filling and overwhelming your senses.
Tony Takitani ("Tony Takitani's real name was...it really was Tony Takitani," the film begins) is a crushingly lonely man of great deliberation and thoughtfulness. Tony is the son of Schozaburo Takitani, a jazz musician who escaped much of the Japanese involvement in World War Two by playing jazz in Shanghai nightclubs. Issei Ogata (Yi Yi) plays the duel roles of Tony Takitani and his father with such precision and depth, it's hard to realize the characters are portrayed by the same actor.
Schozaburo ends up in prison for many years, whistling jazz tunes while lying curled up on a blanket, waiting for the day the guards will come without warning to take him to the courtyard and shoot him. Luck smiles on him, however, and he is eventually released; upon his return home, however, he learns that his entire family was wiped out by the bombings of Hiroshima, and he is utterly alone in the world. Eventually he marries a distant cousin, who dies three days after giving birth to their son.
Schozaburo burdens his son with the American name "Tony" at the suggestion of an American friend. He believes this is a good idea, because he thinks Japan will become more Americanized in the wake of the war. For Tony, the American name is an albatross that sets him apart and isolates him from his peers, forcing the already shy and introspective boy further into his shell.
Schozaburo travels frequently in his career as a jazz musician, leaving Tony alone with a housekeeper. Tony doesn't particularly identify himself as being "lonely". Aloneness is all he knows and has ever known, and even when he is with other people, Tony is in a world unto himself. Isolation is the only thing he knows. Tony is an oddly precise and deliberate child; when assigned to draw a still life of flowers in an art class, for instance, while the other students draw a pot of colorful flowers, Tony sketches a leaf in the most minute and realistic detail.
This obsession with precision lends him well in his adult life; Tony works as a freelance technical artist, rendering immaculately detailed images of radios, engines, and motorcycles. Realistic art is the only art Tony appreciates. He sees all non-realistic forms of art as impractical, emotional and without meaning. He lives in a curiously one-dimensional world, his life not enhanced or enriched by ideas outside his frame of reference. His life is a silent film in slow motion; Tony Takitani is a man so frozen in self-imposed solitary confinement, he doesn't even realize how very alone he is - until the day a client sends a new employee, Eiko (Rie Miyazawa, who also plays duel roles in the film), to pick up some drawings.
Eiko blows into Tony's solitary existence like a warm breeze melting an early frost. Beautiful and fasionable, she wears her clothes with an elegant grace, as if they are a part of her. Tony finally works up the courage to ask her out, and she tells him of her love for fashion, how she spends almost all her salary on clothes, and how her clothes help fill the emptiness inside her.
Eventually, Tony asks her to marry him, and with Eiko he finds a happiness he'd never imagined. He is so happy, he spends the first three months of his marriage in a constant state of terror that it will end; he cannot imagine going back to his life of barren loneliness, now that he has Eiko in his life. The one dim spot in their bright happiness is Eiko's addiction to buying designer clothes. This addiction rubs at Tony like a shoe that doesn't quite fit, and eventually he asks her to slow down her shopping, with a tragic and unexpected result.
The film is helmed by award-winning Japanese filmaker Jun Ichikawa, who made some very deliberate choices in translating the novel for the screen. Ichikawa chose to use a very narrative style for the film - nearly the entire film is told in a quietly powerful voiceover read by Hidetoshi Nishijima, creating a fable-like atmosphere that has the immediate impact of distancing the audience from the actors. It's almost like watching actors pantomining a read-through of a script read off-stage by a disembodied voice - a curious technique, and yet for this film it somehow works beautifully.
Ichikawa uses a muted, decolorized pallete and a focus almost exclusively on the main characters to create a sense of other-wordliness and minute focus, which is partly why he chose to double-cast his leads. Ogata's performance as Tony Takitani is perfectly measured and nuanced; he evokes the deep-rooted sadness and loneliness of a man with no ties and little emotion without saying more than a few words in the entire film. Even Tony Takatani's deepest sorrow, after he loses all he had gained, is conveyed with restraint and subtlety.
The hauntingly beautiful score by award-winning composer Ryuichi Sakamoto is so perfect for the film, it's almost a character unto itself; the simple piano notes, punctuated by pauses, shadow you long after you leave the theater. Tony Takitani is a quiet piece of visual poetry, with every element fitted in its place with forethought and precision. Like the gauzy haze of a dream you can't quite shake after waking, Tony Takitani - the man and the movie - will stay with you long after you leave the world Ishikawa created to tell the tale.