A refined, delicately poetic reverie on loss and memory, “Tony Takitani” reps a major change of pace for writer-director Jun Ichikawa that, though not perfect, could bring him fresh attention in the West. Serene chamber movie, centered on a reclusive illustrator and the one love of his life, has limited theatrical chances beyond festivals and Japanese events, but could rack up enough critical kudos to ensure some tube sales, especially in Europe. Pic won the special jury prize at Locarno.
Ichikawa (“Tokyo Siblings,” “Osaka Story”) has yet to cut a distinct profile outside Japan, largely due to his lack of a strong stylistic imprint and thematic consistency. In adapting this 1995 short story by Haruki Murakami — published in English in the New Yorker two years ago — Ichikawa has ditched his usual naturalistic style in favor of a spare, reflective approach, with little dialogue, plenty of v.o. narration (spoken by Hidetoshi Nishijima) and desaturated, limpid colors.
Pic closely follows Murakami’s original, which is told in the third person as a kind of sympathetic character study of a socially challenged individual. Starting in docu-like style, with ochrish period photos, film sketches the background of the protag’s father, Shozaburo Takitani, a jazz musician who spent WWII playing in a Shanghai nightclub, was briefly imprisoned after the war and later named his son Tony on the suggestion of an American Army major.
Due to his Western name, Tony was shunned by other kids and spent a solitary childhood. Though gifted as an artist, his drawings lacked feeling, so as an adult, he carved a career as a technical illustrator. Then in middle age, Tony (legit actor Issey Ogata) suddenly falls for a pretty young woman, Eiko Konuma (Rie Miyazawa, last seen in “Twilight Samurai”), who visits him one day on business.
Eiko is like an angel in Tony’s existence, and for the first time in his life, he feels connected to the outside world. However, Eiko does have one fault: she’s a clothing shopaholic.
At the 40-minute mark, just when the picture’s fragile, highly controlled atmosphere — with slow, lateral tracks and a quiet, repeated piano theme by composer Ryuichi Sakamoto — is beginning to overstay its welcome, the story springs a plot reversal that involves a double of Eiko (also Miyazawa) entering Tony’s life.
Like Murakami’s short story, the film never develops into a fully fledged drama about obsession. Its parameters are small, almost sketch-like and, with Miyazawa playing the two women, and Ogata both Tony and his aged father, it’s essentially a two-hander.
Ogata is restrained as Tony, with cult Japanese-Dutch actress-model Miyazawa providing most of the pic’s life.
Ultimately, this is a striking-looking film — consciously recalling the paintings of Edward Hopper in its architectural use of space — which, like its protag, is a little short on real feeling.