by Chuck Williamson
Adapted from Haruki Murakami’s short story, Tony Takitani is an elliptical and glacial mediation on isolation, melancholia, and loss that, through its visualizations/externalizations of psychic trauma, surpasses its source material. Few cinematic representations of trauma encapsulate the sort of stasis and inertia—not to mention the psychic wreckage of loss and grief—that, from beginning to end, dominates the life of the film’s eponymous protagonist. Branded as an outsider by his strange gaijin name—the byproduct of his father’s post-occupation paranoia—Tony (Issei Ogata) seems predestined from birth to a life of isolation and loneliness. Indeed, his is a life defined by fixed, metronomic rhythms and interminable seclusion, a self-constructed prison where Tony goes through his daily motions as if in an anesthetized daze. Ichikawa externalizes the alienation and latent melancholia that dominates Tony’s day-to-day existence through muted, monochromatic compositions, a drained and minimalist mise-en-scene framed in claustrophobic long shots and punctuated by the slow, languorous rhythm of a continual left-to-right pan. Such formal strategies further immerse us in Takitani’s hermetically sealed shell of a world, giving us visual access to its monotony and loneliness.
But Takitani’s world opens up—formally and thematically—after a chance encounter with young fashionista Eiko (Rie Miyazawa), triggering in him not only a dormant desire to love and be loved, but also the sudden recognition of his own loneliness. In contrast to Tony’s ascetic isolation, Eiko’s shopoholic materialism marks her as a woman engaged with the world, if not consumed by it; she endures the same emptiness that Tony has grown accustomed to, but attempts to fill the void with designer clothes. As Tony says to his father after their marriage, “It’s as if she were born to play dress up.” But when a sudden twist of fate puts a permanent end to this domestic bliss, her clothes transform into corporeal representations of his internal trauma. Isolated within the confines of her walk-in closet, Tony is surrounded by the physical reminders of her absence—hundreds of designer outfits, accessories, and shoes—that, paradoxically, linger like ghosts that make “letting go” an impossibility. These objects take on a special significance for Tony, transforming his trauma into something more tactile and palpable; they are tangible reminders of her absence that make it more difficult to come to terms with his loss. Even when Tony hires a female assistant—a doppelganger for his deceased wife—to wear his wife’s old clothes to “grow accustomed to her absence,” Tony’s sense of loss and loneliness deepens and, by the end, completely consumes him.
As the film sinks into the deepest recesses of Tony’s sadness and seclusion, it gives us privileged access to both the physical and psychic spaces that define his experience with loneliness and loss. In the film’s final moments, we see Tony retract even further into his shell, surrendering to what the narrator describes as “the prison of loneliness.” The cumulative effect is chilling.