At the risk of disappearing up my own arse, I would describe this movie as a beautiful, strange, surreal tone poem. The movie is about a man and woman called Tony and Eiko. Each has a profound emptiness inside and seeks to mask it. Tony becomes a gifted illustrator who specialises in depicting mechanical objects. It is almost as though he has, by isolating himself, become an automata himself. But he meets the beautiful Eiko, and they marry. His opening line to her is, "I love the way you inhabit your clothes with such relish." At first, this seems like a wonderfully guache, yet charmingly honest pick-up line. But later we see that it has a darker under-tone. He has married a woman who also has a deep emptiness inside. She buys clothes in order to feel that she is alive. This might seem a little ridiculous as the basis for a movie, and for the first five minutes I had deep misgivings about this film. However, if you give it a chance it is impossible not to be drawn in by Tony's awful sadness, his undoubted love for Eiko, and her own loneliness.
The movie is based on a short story by Haruki Murakami, who has created unique and sympathetic plot and characters. But it is Ichikawa who has rendered them into a powerful cinematic masterpiece. He has done this in three ways. First, in adapting the novel he has used the unusual device of having almost the entire film narrated, either by an off-screen narrator or by the characters themselves. Very little of the film is conventional dialogue. At first, this seemed odd and forced, but it suits the characters perfectly. So much of their life is about isolation and an inability to communicate, than what better a device than internal narration? The second key choice was in casting. Apparently Issei Ogata, who plays both Tony and his father Schozaburo, is a well-known comedian in Japan. I would nver have guessed that from his mournful performance, but it proves the old adage that comedy is only a heartbeat away from tragedy. The third key choice was in the look of the film. There is nothing extraneous on-screen, just as there is no extraneous dialogue. Much of the film takes place in Tony's house - a set created on top of a hill in Yokohama. The house is shot in subdued natural colours, with views of whispy nature all around, increasing the heightened sense of reality and isolation. Moreover, the director deliberately chose a stills photographer to be his cinematographer, and this comes through in the calm, tableaux-like feel of the movie.
Despite my initial scepticism about this film, as the lights went up I felt as though I had seen a delicate but beautiful masterpiece. Certainly too delicate and slim in its subject matter to support the vast amount of over-intellectualised nonsense that some audience members threw upon it in the Q&A. However, if you have 75 minutes to spare and want to see something original, engaging and quietly stunning, do check this movie out.
TONY TAKITANI showed at London back in 2004 and at Sundance 2005. It got a limited release in the US, Germany and Austria last summer and is currently, finally, on commercial release in the UK.