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The recent films Drive My Car and Burning, two exquisite screen adaptations of Haruki Murakami’s fiction, delve into unsettling enigmas and longings, spun around performances of gripping subtlety. As a work of animation, Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman can’t plumb behavioral depths and tics in quite the same way. But animation is an apt medium for exploring another aspect of Murakami’s work, his magic-realist spin on existential angst. Pierre Földes, a composer and visual artist at the helm of his first feature, has made something that mixes the painterly and the stylized, a film that’s lovely, mysterious and also, at times, fittingly odd.
The writer-director finds connective tissue among the various storylines in the idea of an earthquake as a psychic rupture, shaking loose the dissatisfactions and yearnings that are usually under wraps, keeping people shut off and stuck. Földes’ multiple roles here include writing the score, voicing a key part and, not least, designing the characters and settings — his graphic style having won over Murakami, otherwise not a fan of animated movies.
Blind Willow Sleeping Woman
Cast: Ryan Bommarito, Shoshana Wilder, Marcelo Arroyo, Scott Humphrey, Arthur Holden, Pierre Földes, Normand Carrière, Cora Kim, Katherine King So
Director-screenwriter: Pierre Földes; based on stories by Haruki Murakami
1 hour 49 minutes
The source material is six short stories from three collections (Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman; After the Quake and The Elephant Vanishes). Földes has interlaced their plots, with a focus on a trio of protagonists: two men who occupy neighboring cubicles at a financial institution, and the wife of one of them. There are dips into their pasts, but the unifying present tense is the period of fallout after the massive earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan in 2011. This is, on the one hand, a world of the familiar: TVs and radios blaring constant news of the aftermath; a marriage collapsing; a company downsizing and outsourcing. But it’s also one where a giant talking frog undertakes a heroic mission, a recluse grants wishes like a genie, and a spectral blue cat comes and goes.
The feature is divided into six sections, each of them drawing upon elements from at least two of the chosen stories. A netherworld-gray pall hangs over the city as Komura (Ryan Bommarito) heads to work in the loan department of Tokyo Security Trust Bank — the name alone spells trouble — while his wife, Kyoko (Shoshana Wilder), remains glued to TV news of the mounting death toll, withdrawing from life as the search for life in the rubble plays out before her. When at last she gets off the couch, it’s to leave Komura.
“It suits me fine” is the most Komura can say about his job, and his boss (Arthur Holden) offers little in the way of enthusiasm when he calls him a “good, pleasant employee.” An older colleague, Katagiri (Marcelo Arroyo), is an overworked sad sack whose pent-up rage rises to the surface in the form of Frog (voiced by the helmer). The tea-drinking, Nietzsche-quoting six-foot amphibian seeks Katagiri’s help in saving Tokyo from imminent destruction, and he has a webbed foot on the pulse of the loan officer’s pain: “All these years you have silently accepted the least glamorous assignments, carrying them off beautifully,” Frog tells him, noting too that Katagiri has been “un-promoted, unappreciated.”
If all that is true, it’s no wonder Katagiri is so lacking in confidence. But his self-loathing, barely contained by endless stacks of folders, is extreme and heartrending. While he and Frog embark on what is, in a sense, Jungian shadow work, Komura takes a break from the office. He’s mourning his marriage and contemplating whether to accept a severance package or remain in what his boss, no diplomat, calls a dead end. His halfhearted search for Kyoko’s missing cat leads to a strange yet stirring encounter with a precocious young neighbor (Laurie Babin).
Early in the film, Komura accompanies a teenage boy (Jesse Noah Gruman) to a hospital. In the short story that gives the movie its name, the boy, who’s receiving treatments for a hearing problem, is Komura’s nephew. It’s understandable that Földes perhaps saw no natural way to work that detail into the conversation, or a reason to do so, but their relationship remains distractingly unclear in the film. It’s a minor annoyance, though, and doesn’t affect the impact of the sweet-sad episode. For Komura, the trip sparks charged and tender memories of Kyoko, long before they were married, when she was dating his best friend (Michael Czyz). Kyoko indulges in her own backward glances, over drinks in a dark bar, telling a friend about the mysterious restaurant proprietor (Normand Carrière) she met on her 20th birthday.
A good deal of the movie’s dialogue is drawn verbatim from Murakami’s stories, and it’s delivered with a mix of accents (the film is a France-Luxembourg-Canada-Netherlands co-production) that’s noticeable but somehow adds to the prevailing dream logic of the proceedings. The language they speak hasn’t the high sheen of literary polish; it’s often realistically flat and awkward, the pointed insights all the more affecting when they burst through the patter. There are sinister undertones, too, in the way some characters signal that they know things they’re not divulging. Sometimes this is merely the flashing sign of a frenemy, as is the case with Komura’s co-worker Sasaki (Scott Humphrey). And sometimes the effect is provocative and intriguing, as in Komura’s exchanges with Shimao (Katherine King So) in an airport lounge, a restaurant and a love hotel named Astral — all told, a sequence that powerfully captures not just Komura’s sorrow over Kyoko, but also the intimacy of postcoital conversation.
The combination of visual literalness and abstraction serves the material well. The evocative palette ranges from stygian to sun-bleached watercolors, and many background characters, including passersby on the street, are translucent figures without detail, a perfect expression of their place in the drama. For the central players, Földes’ character design was “inspired” by live-action performers (without rotoscoping), and while there’s something slightly exaggerated and clumsy about the onscreen people, they’re also alive with uncomfortable pauses and a sense that they’re in the moment, variously dismayed and astonished and trying to sort it out.
Blind Willow’s multistrand narrative moves between the tug of memory, the proximity of trouble and the promise, however slim or desperate, of something better ahead. The superb soundtrack deepens that push-pull, in the sibilant whoosh of ocean waves, the gentle percussion of rain against a city window, the incessant murmur of an airport terminal. Spiked with judiciously used doses of Mozart, Földes’ eloquent music score is fully in sync with the shifting moods, from fantasy to tragedy, from the comic to touches of noir — just as the film itself is sync with Murakami’s particular blend of the quotidian and the surreal.
Production companies: Cinéma Defacto, Miyu Productions, Studio Ma, Doghouse Films, micro_scope, Productions L’unité Centrale, An Original Picture
Cast: Ryan Bommarito, Shoshana Wilder, Marcelo Arroyo, Scott Humphrey, Arthur Holden, Pierre Földes, Normand Carrière, Cora Kim, Katherine King So, Jesse Noah Gruman, Michael Czyz, Alex Ivanovici, Zag Dorison, John Vamvas, Yannick Lemos, Nadia Verrucci, Felicia Shulman, Laurie Babin
Director-screenwriter/character and production designer/composer: Pierre Földes
Based on stories by Haruki Murakami
Producers: Tom Dercourt, Emmanuel-Alain Raynal, Pierre Baussaron, Olivier Pere, Pierre Urbain, David Mouraire
Cinematographer: Étienne Boilard
Art director: Julien De Man
Editor: Kara Blake
Sound designer/editor: Matthew Földes
Sound mixing: Michel Schillings
Casting: Kate Yablunovsy, Bruno Rosata
1 hour 49 minutes
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