The Sounds of Solitude in ‘Tony Takitani’

The minimalist visuals and Ryuichi Sakamoto’s otherworldly score make this adaptation of a Haruki Murakami short story create music even in the echoing emptiness.

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The titular character in Tony Takitani has a remarkable name — an American anomaly in Japan that subjects him to constant questioning of whether he was born with it or not (he was). But beyond receiving comments about his name, Tony’s (Issey Ogata) life is mostly spent working in quiet solitude. Directed in 2004 by Jun Ichikawa, this adaptation of a Haruki Murakami short story is an exercise in minimalism. The film makes heavy use of narration, which Tony occasionally talks back to, given he has few other conversational partners. This isn’t to say that his life has been entirely devoid of colorful characters: he was born to an enigmatic jazz musician who spent time in prison, and he eventually falls in love with, and later marries, a woman with a compulsive, extravagant shopping habit.

Yet, Tony stands in opposition to their excess, and it’s only a matter of time before death cuts them out of his life and leaves him solo once more. Aloneness and quietness seems to be his default setting, and Ichikawa walks us through Tony’s world — telling his tale of loneliness, love, loss, and again, loneliness, in a subdued visual language. The minimalistic dialogue and Ryuichi Sakamoto’s ethereal score allow the emptiness of Tony’s apartment to echo all the more, the solo jazz piano providing melancholy theme music for the recursive days. 

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Tony Takitani, at the most basic level, is a story of loneliness — yet, through creating an atmosphere of ghosts and doubles that haunt the present, it’s also one of never quite truly being alone. Tony is always surrounded by traces of past love and wisps of memory that offer solace in, or intrude upon, his solitude. Even while she’s alive, Tony’s wife takes up more space in his world than he knows what to do with.

When he first meets her and notices her intense devotion to beautiful clothing, he remarks, “I’ve never met someone who inhabits her clothes with such obvious relish as you.” But, as she endlessly shops for clothing, they have to create new wardrobe shelves and convert an entire room into a closet to accommodate her ceaseless purchases. She has no qualms about admitting that the clothes attempt to fill the void within herself. Tony is a skilled illustrator, with a particular ardor for drawing plans for commercial machines, but he cannot create anything that addresses her internal emptiness — or his own. Instead, their hollowness is left to echo as they reverberate off each other.

The idiosyncrasies of Murakami’s prose may be nearly impossible to replicate in filmic form, yet Sakamoto’s moody melodies help place the audience in the kind of otherworldly trance that serves as the author’s trademark. Underscored by the sounds of jazz and classical music, the narrator recounts events like he is reading from a book of poetry or lyrics, quickly breezing through the pages of Tony’s story in the film’s brisk runtime. But much of that time is taken up by empty space: if Tony’s life were a poem, it would be a simple haiku, leaving most of its meaning in that which remains unsaid. 

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Sakamoto’s score has an almost funereal quality, but his “Solitude” theme offers incomplete musical phrases, ellipses, and repetitions rather than endings. It accompanies the slow-panning camerawork like a gloomy cloud, sprinkling simple piano phrases. Yet even quiet music can create a feverish intensity when played in obsessive loops, such as the key scene when Tony’s wife feels guilty and returns a coat and dress to the store. After leaving the shop, she is bedeviled by the decision, and the repeated musical phrases reflect the obsessive loops of her thoughts. Suddenly, she turns her car around and starts driving back to the store, a decision which ultimately leads to the car crash that takes her life. Her death is quick and sharp, as if the sound has abruptly cut out of Tony’s life, returning him to a silent world once more. 

Even the music seems to have lost something about its typical cadence. When Tony attempts to regain some sensation by watching his father at a jazz concert, he thinks that the music is somehow different from what he typically performs. The difference is impossible to name, but it’s “subtle yet crucial” to Tony. Tony Takitani, in its minimalist stripped-down sounds and images, is filled with countless half-perceptible epiphanies and near-inaudible revelations: stop listening for even a moment and you might just miss the critical note that suggests a change in tune may lie ahead. 

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Some of those tune changes take us in absurdist directions. Tired of living in melancholy minor keys, Tony tries to find someone else to fill the void within him — or at least fill his wife’s clothes. Tony puts out an advertisement for an assistant, whom he asks to wear his wife’s clothes as a “uniform.” When one candidate looks through the closet, there is no music playing as she becomes overwhelmed by the scene, falling to the floor and crying. The haunting piano returns during her bus ride home after Tony sends her away with his wife’s luxurious coat — and, in essence, with her ghost as well.

This delicate meditation on memory and grief offers no definitive answers or resounding chords, exercising restraint as it tries to exorcise the ghosts of the past. But in the same way that Sakamoto’s solo piano score is more than enough to entirely enchant us, Tony’s solo life can still be filled with profound wonder if he knows where to look or listen. Always searching for melodies in other people, perhaps he can find the music in his own life, and start to make something beautiful in solitude.

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