Tony Takitani Analysis Essay

The New Yorker, April 15, 2002 P. 74

Short story about Tony Takitani, the son of Shozaburo Takitani, a Japanese jazz musician who went to Shanghai before the Second World War, played in clubs and ended up in a Chinese jail. Shozaburo was one of two Japanese to leave his prison alive. He went back to Japan, married a distant cousin, who bore a child and then died. Shozaburo could not grasp what death was all about, and even forgot the baby he had left in the hospital. An American major named the child Tony. For the child, living with his name was not much fun. Kids at school called him "half-breed." A child called Tony Takitani was all it took to reopen old wounds. So Tony Takitani found it natural to be by himself. He loved to draw, and became an illustrator. His mechanical, realistic style, which bothered his teachers , proved extremely practical. Tony Takitani never had a problem finding work. He took on everything,, and made good money. By the time he was thirty-five, he had amassed a small fortune, but he never considered marriage and had no real friends, though he had perfectly normal relationships with people he saw on a daily basis. One day Tony Takitani fell in love. Twenty-two years old, she was a demure girl with a gentle smile who wore her clothes with naturalness and grace. He had never seen a woman wear her clothes with such apparent joy. The two found they had much in common. The fifth time they met, he asked her to marry him. She didn't know whether she could call what she felt love, but she felt that he had something wonderful inside, and that she would be happy if she made her life with him. And so they married. This brought the lonely period of Tony Takitani's life to an end, but there was something odd for him about not feeling lonely. He began to fear the possibility of becoming lonely again. Their married life was free of shadows. They never fought, and spent many happy hours together, but he was concerned by her tendency to buy too many clothes. She bought a shocking number of items during their travels around Europe. He finally built a special room for her clothes. When that became too small, he told her, "I wish you would consider cutting back a little." She agreed, but this began a time of great suffering for her. She spent every day in her room full of clothing, gazing at her clothes, slipping them on and looking at herself. She simply couldn't stand it. But she loved her husband deeply. And she respected him. She brought herself to return a dress and coat, and became so distracted driving home that she was killed by a truck. Tony Takitani was left with a roomful of Size-2 dresses and a hundred and twelve pairs of shoes. He put an ad in the paper for a female assistant, dress Size-2, approximately five feet three, shoe size six. He asked the woman he hired to answer his phones, deliver illustrations, make copies, and to wear his wife's clothes. When the woman sees the clothes, tears well up in her eyes. "I've never see so many beautiful dresses before." She takes a week's worth home with her. Tony cannot understand why they made her cry. To him, they seemed Size-2 shadows of his wife. He tells the assistant she can keep the clothes, but she should forget about the job, and please don't tell anyone about it. Tony Takitani had a used-clothing dealer take the clothes away. For awhile, he'd just sit in the empty clothes room for an hour or two at a time, letting his mind go blank. Sometimes he could barely recall his wife's face. What he did recall was a total stranger shedding tears at the sight of the dresses his wife had left behind. Two years after his wife's death, his father died of liver cancer. Shozaburo left nothing that could be called property, just boxes of records, which Tony stacked on the floor of the empty room. A year went by, and having the records began to bother him more and more. His memories grew indistinct, but still maintained the weight that memories can have. He sold the records, and once they disappeared, Tony Takitani was really alone.

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A delicate wisp of a film with a surprisingly sharp sting, "Tony Takitani" tells the story of a lonely man who at age 37 awakens to life for the first time during a brief idyll. The film was directed by Jun Ichikawa, who has adapted this Haruki Murakami short story of the same title with grace and fidelity. Short on incident and narrated in the third person with serene detachment, the original story was published in The New Yorker three years ago and, at least on first reading, would seem impossible to transpose to the screen.

Like the short story, the film begins before the birth of its title character. Three years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Tony (Issey Ogata) is born to a jazz musician and a woman whose health isn't strong enough to withstand the birth of her only child. Between the death of his mother and his father's benign neglect, Tony grows up in profound isolation, a state he will not notice until he falls in love. In the film, the woman, Eiko (Rie Miyazawa), floats into his life as if from a dream, and it's in a dream state that Tony comes alive. The couple date, marry and together build an almost perfect life that is marred, ever so slightly, by the wife's passion for clothes.

"In Milan and Paris she went from boutique to boutique, morning to night, like one possessed," Mr. Murakami writes. "Instead of the Duomo or the Louvre, they saw Valentino, Missoni, Saint Laurent, Givenchy, Ferragamo, Armani, Cerruti, Gianfranco Ferré." Mr. Ichikawa translates this orgy of consumerism into an elegant montage of her shopping, the camera often fixed on her feet in their spiky heels, whimsical flats and a questionable pair of ankle boots. The year is 1985, and Japan is in the midst of the economic boom that will turn it into an economic superpower. Tony earns plenty of money, but Eiko's obsession gnaws at him. One day, he asks if she could spend a little less, a request that leads to disaster.

It would be unfair to burden "Tony Takitani," in either its written or its filmed form, with too much political weight. That said, Mr. Murakami has Tony's parents marry in 1947, the same year that Japan adopted its constitution (and pacifism) and Gen. Douglas A. MacArthur gutted the country's left wing by squelching a planned general strike. The image of Tony that emerges in adulthood, hunched over his worktable as he painstakingly draws machines, a job for which we are told he is well suited, dovetails with the stereotype of postwar Japan as a country of money and conformity, not of art and individuality. It's a stereotype that the story and the film at once acknowledge and obliterate.

"Loneliness is like a prison," says the film's narrator, with a voice like a caress. Early in the film, Tony's father lies in a Chinese jail cell; decades later, his son curls into the same position in an empty room in his house. Tony's cell may be self-constructed -- he reaches out only to Eiko -- but the prison in which that cell sits was not built by him alone. Mr. Ichikawa's insistence on Tony's historical context may even be behind the steady left-to-right camera movements the director uses throughout the film: before the occupation, Japanese was written right to left (and up and down), which is the same direction that traditional horizontal scrolls are viewed. It's no wonder Tony often seems headed in the wrong direction.

It's worth noting that Mr. Murakami's story echoes, if only in broad strokes, Gogol's "Overcoat," another short story about another lonely man, Akakii Akakievich, who falls under the spell of a love that tragically ushers him into the world. Gogol's hero dies alone; Mr. Murakami's simply ends up alone. Mr. Ichikawa, however, ends his film with the image of Tony Takitani staring at a photograph and thinking about someone other than himself. How you read this image will depend on whether you like your glass half full or half empty. Mr. Murakami, at least by evidence of this one story, seems to like his glass more empty than not. Mr. Ichikawa appears more hopeful and more than willing to pass the glass around.

Tony Takitani Opens in Manhattan today.

Directed by Jun Ichikawa; written (in Japanese, with English subtitles) by Mr. Ichikawa, based on the story by Haruki Murakami; director of photography, Hirokawa Taishi; edited by Sanjyo Tomoo; music by Ryuichi Sakamoto; production designer, Ichida Yoshikazu; produced by Ishida Motoki, Yonezawa Keiko, Koshikawa Michio and Higuchi Shinsuke; released by Strand Releasing. At the Angelika Film Center, Mercer and Houston Streets, Greenwich Village. Running time: 75 minutes. This film is not rated.

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