Tony Takitani Review

Based very closely on a short story by Haruki Murakami, the character of Tony Takitani is typical of the solitary protagonists that feature in most of the Japanese writer’s novels and stories - characters who suffer the loss or death of a close companion and undergo surreal experiences of sensory deprivation, often finding themselves literally and metaphorically at the bottom of a deep well. Murakami’s shorter stories are often typically oblique, lacking any complexity of plot or the light and shade of his novels, focussing rather on the evocation or exploration of moods and emotions. This is particularly true of his short story Tony Takitani (recently published in the UK in the collection Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman), which explores the essence of what it means to be truly and utterly alone. Jun Ichikawa’s film adaptation of the story therefore holds true to the original story – not just in its use of a narration that sticks very closely to Murakami’s text, but also in finding the right mood and images to match its tone.

In line with the introduction of the original text, Tony Takitani opens with the back story of Tony’s father Shozaburo Takitani, a Japanese jazz musician who relocated to China before the war. After the end of the war Shozaburo was imprisoned by the Chinese authorities, where he waited for the same death by firing squad that was the fate of many of his companions. He survives however and in 1946 he is shipped back to Japan to find his only relatives had also all died in the firebombing of his home town. “In other words”, the narrator tells us, “he was then utterly alone in the world”. He marries and has a son, but his wife dies three days after giving birth. Consoled by an American major, he takes his advice and names his son Tony, a very un-Japanese name that immediately sets the boy apart from everyone else. There is no closeness between Tony and his father and the boy grows up alone. Through the solitary act of drawing Tony finds work as an artist, or at least a draughtsman, since his works are coldly and mechanically perfect in every detail, but show no life or feeling. It is only when he meets Eiko, a beautiful woman with an obsession for designer clothes, that he realises just how lonely he really is. But he is to find that there are further depths of loneliness into which a person can sink.

What is true loneliness? It is the solitariness of never having been close to someone or being unable to connect to another person? Or is it only when we know and lose a person that we understand the true meaning of loneliness? Murakami’s story explores these ideas further, considering the weight of possessions one leaves behind as well as the mysterious vagaries of memory and how they take on more force than the reality of loss itself. Ichikawa’s minimalist film adaptation Tony Takitani masterfully captures the tone and tenor of Murakami’s work in the dull, fuzzy, sepia toned images that capture the nature of solitude and memory. The film maintains a slow, regular pace, characterised by consistent slow pans and tracking shots moving from left to right. Some have observed that this imitates the flow of reading a book, which would be a clever observation were it not for the fact that the Japanese do not read from left to right, but it even so, it gives a good indication of the fluidity of the film, which is of a piece like a concerto or, more appropriately in this case, like a free-form, slow-burning melancholic jazz number.

In this respect, the film has a perfectly judged and expressive musical accompaniment - as opposed to a mere soundtrack – by Ryuichi Sakamoto. With an Eric Satie-influenced score played out gently and plaintively on solo piano, it doesn’t so much rely on themes as work with the flow of the film, adding a voice and expression to it in the absence of any real dialogue. It’s a method that is even more appropriate considering the occupation of Tony’s father as a jazz musician and moreover it suits the language of the narrative, since jazz music is a major influence on the author, Murakami, particularly in his writing style. The narration here, as well as retaining the precise tone of the original story, captures that certain quirkiness of Murakami’s prose – not as evident in English as it is in Japanese – by having the characters weave in and out of the narration, finishing sentences and narrating their own fates with perfect naturalism. The film also makes clever use of a device where Issei Ogata and Rie Miyazawa both play dual roles in the film, further intensifying the complex bonds between the characters they play.

The film also acheives a similarly complex connection with the viewer that relies on making a direct emotional contact. It achieves this through a perfectly judged execution of every aspect of the film, from the conception of the set designs and the flow of the camera, through to Ryuichi Sakamoto’s expressive score, the retention of Haruki Murakami’s original narrative and the method by which it is given expression through the characters on the screen. More than that however, Jun Ichikawa’s understanding of the subtleties and complexities of the story allow him to bring to the film a soft poetic touch that captures the air of surrealism at the vagaries of memory and the depths of human loss with an exquisite sense of quiet anguish.

Tony Takitani is released in the UK by Axiom Films. The disc is encoded for Region 2 as is in PAL format.

The film is transferred to DVD at the correct 1.85:1 aspect ratio, but disappointingly it is not anamorphically enhanced. Colours are deliberately muted, tones dampened by sepia colouring to such an extent that there are few blacks in evidence anywhere in the film. The true blacks of the end titles however show this is not just a lightening of the image in the transfer, but how the film is intended to look. A fair amount of grain is visible which, when combined with the colour toning, can make the film look a little soft and hazy at times. Faint purple and yellow banding of cross-colouration can also be seen often in solid blocks of background. The image however has a beautiful tone that is well suited to the film and is very stable showing no evidence of compression artefacts, though edge enhancement can be detected. The running time suggests an NTSC to PAL conversion, but this doesn’t have any significant affect on the transfer unless viewed progressively, when the blurring of movements can be more easily noticed. The main failing is the non-anamorphic letterboxing and the fixed subtitles, but other than that, it’s a more than satisfactory transfer of the film and seems to be pretty close to how it is intended to look.

The audio track is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0. The tone of the film is excellent, having a warmth and clarity of tone that is in keeping with the film’s mood. There is a very low level of analogue hiss on the track, but both dialogue and the gentle music score are quite clear and accurate.

Optional English subtitles are included on the film, but are not available for any of the extra features.

The Making Of (1:07:26) is long and detailed, showing a lot of behind the scenes planning and preparation as well as the setting up and filming of scenes. One unusual point that comes out of this feature is that the entire film was actually shot outdoors, even the “interiors”, which contributes considerably to Tony Takitani’s remarkably original look and feel. There is nothing else like this fascinating revelation in the rest of this long feature, which inevitably shows the director and crew having to contend with the outdoor weather conditions. The Theatrical Trailer (1:37) for the English language release of the film, is made up of silent images and Sakamoto’s score, giving no indication of the storyline. The Film Stills Gallery contains 20 stills which seem taken directly from the film, while the Production Stills Gallery shows 20 stills taken behind-the-scenes.

Comparison to the Geneon Japanese R2 edition
The principal differences in the specifications of the disc however are the fact that the Japanese DVD is anamorphic and the UK release is not. This is poor decision on the part of the Axiom, which will immediately reduce their potential customer base, since it is the primary consideration for most buyers when purchasing a DVD. The audio track on the Japanese is technically superior, using the higher bit-rate of PCM stereo as opposed to the UK’s Dolby Digital 2.0, but in practice, there is little audible difference between them. The UK release additionally has fixed English subtitles, while on the Japanese DVD English subtitles are optional, though for the film only. In addition to the hour-long ‘Making Of’ feature on the UK disc, the Japanese 2-disc set contains Interviews (49:09) with Jun Ichikawa, Issey Ogata and Rie Miyazawa, further interviews with the same people at the Premiere (12:41) and again at a Press Conference (12:34). The UK has the advantage of including the substantial ‘Making Of’, with English subtitles, while none of the extra features on the Japanese set are subtitled at all.

The Axiom UK PAL transfer runs to 76 minutes, which is exactly the same length as the Japanese NTSC edition from Geneon, suggesting that it has been converted to PAL from an NTSC master. In spite of this, there are few signs that this conversion has any adverse affect on the transfer on a normal tube display. The film makes extensive use of camera pans and they all flow perfectly smoothly on Axiom’s UK release. There may be some slight blurring of movement, but not in any way that is significantly different to the Japanese edition. A progressive playback of the DVD will however reveal more clearly the blurring and interlacing of moving frames caused by the standards conversion.

The UK edition has the film and extra features on a dual-layer disc, while the Japanese keeps the feature on a single-layer disc with only the trailer, the remaining extra features are all on a separate dual-layer disc. The use of a dual-layer disc for the feature appears to be beneficial to the UK release which generally looks fine and close to the desired tone for the film. In comparison to the Japanese edition however, colours are not quite as true, detail is not as clear, and it is not as sharp. The UK looks slightly less grainy possibly, but this could be on account of the PAL to NTSC conversion smoothing out the natural film grain. Edge-enhancement however is certainly more noticeable on the UK release.

A screenshot comparison of the two editions can be seen below. Axiom UK first followed by the Geneon Japanese:

Additional details of the Japanese edition and further screenshots can be found in the review of the DVD here

I’ve now seen this film a number of times and even though I had a great familiarity with the original short story, the film bears and indeed benefits from repeated viewings. There simply isn’t another film quite like Tony Takitani. Like a beautiful concerto that perfectly evokes a mood or an emotion above and beyond the surface reading of the material, Tony Takitani is a unique work of apparent simplicity that reveals layers and depths that each time returned to, completely enveloping the viewer in its world, making a pure emotional connection. Axiom’s UK release unfortunately exhibits signs of cost-cutting, with a non-anamorphic transfer that appears to be a NTSC to PAL conversion. Nevertheless, the essential image and tone of the film remain intact on this UK DVD release, which only suffers in comparison to the superior specification of the Japanese Region 2 DVD edition.

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