TOKYO More than any other Japanese filmmaker, Jun Ichikawa seems intent on stressing the “Japanese-ness” in his stories. His characters are almost always restrained, well-behaved and unemotional. What displays of drama there are, are only alluded to in bits of dialogue and rarely played out in his lens.
The method was perfected in his fourth feature, “Tokyo Siblings” (1995), the story of a brother and his younger sister living together in their (long dead) parents’ home. The siblings’ quiet love for each other is described by a shot of two pairs of chopsticks laid out just so (a sure sign of harmony in the home) or the sight of the sister’s cotton summer dress (her brother’s favorite) drying in the breeze.
Every day, the sister buys fresh tofu for her brother and he comes home with her favorite fruits.
“I don’t think of these things as particularly Japanese,” Ichikawa said. “But I do have this tendency to avoid outright emotional demonstrations and raised voices, overt depictions of anger or sadness. If you care to call that Japanese, then I guess that’s what it is.
“When I was first filming ‘Tokyo Siblings,’ I told the actor and actress to be natural with each other, and what happened was that they sat at the table and looked into each other’s eyes,” he added. “I told them to stop it. No brother and sister would look at one another like that. They’ve been living together all their lives, they have an established routine, why was there a need to look at each other?”
That floored the pair because they had understood “Tokyo Siblings” to be a love story of sorts. How were they to express that with such little dialogue to help them? “I think they were uncomfortable with the silence, those frequent spaces of shared silence. But I think that’s a natural state for siblings or any long-term relationship. Why pretend otherwise? And then they realized it was okay to be cool about it, and we went on to make the movie.”
In Japan, Ichikawa’s works are most often compared to those of Yasujiro Ozu – that master creator of shared silences and precise, still-life frames in which every detail occupies a designated spot carefully selected by the director. Ozu was famed for reprimanding his cast for making the slightest, almost imperceptible movements not in the scenario. And though Ichikawa says he doesn’t go that far, he does acknowledge, “I demand a lot from my actors. At times maybe I push them too hard.”
His latest film, called “Tony Takitani,” is his 17th. His movies have been made at a pace of about one a year since his debut feature in 1987.
Undoubtedly one of the most prolific directors in Japan, Ichikawa didn’t have the overseas popularity of other Japanese directors until “Tony Takitani,” which won a special award at the Locarno Film Festival, finally put the 57-year old director’s name on the map.
“The journalists at the film festival told me they thought this was a very Japanese kind of film. I seem to draw out that response,” he said. “It’s true some of themes in the story are quite representative of contemporary Japan. But more than that, I was simply intrigued by the story and by the main character, Tony.”
The film opens with a voice-over narration: “Tony Takitani’s real name was really Tony Takitani.” It is based on a short story by Haruki Murakami, the widely translated writer whose most recent novel published in English is “Kafka on the Shore.”
“I’ve always loved his works with avid devotion,” Ichikawa said. “There’s just something about them that has a particular, striking poignancy.” To pay tribute to his favorite author, Ichikawa put special care in assembling his two-person main cast. The title role went to the stand-up comedian Issey Ogata, who is known for his darkly funny one-man shows.
Ogata’s inherent love of solitude and the astonishing range and versatility of his performances come to the fore in this story of a man seemingly born into loneliness.
Despite the cheery American name (bestowed by a G.I. who befriended his father), Tony spent most of his life enshrouded in gloom and utter solitude. His mother died shortly after he was born and his father was a jazz musician perpetually on tour. Ichikawa depicts Tony’s life as he matures from a child into a man in telling vignettes: A scene of the boy Tony eating dinner (alone) while the housekeeper (a middle-aged woman who only wants to go home as soon as possible) washes dishes with her back turned. Or Tony in arts college, explaining to an acquaintance how he broke up with a girlfriend in one rapid sentence (“It just didn’t work out”).
“Tony Takitani is so completely lonely he doesn’t realize just how lonely he is until he falls in love,” said Ichikawa, summing up the story. After hereaches middle age, Tony (now a successful illustrator) meets the woman who becomes his wife, and he awakens from his coma of solitude.
For the all-important role of Tony’s wife, Ichikawa chose the acclaimed actress Rie Miyazawa, whose fashion-model physique and sophisticated air fulfilled the necessary requirements: Tony’s wife was a woman addicted to luxury clothes. (“If she saw something beautiful, then that was it. She had to have it,” goes the narration.)
At first Tony is unfazed by what he sees as a minor idiosyncrasy and simply basks in marital bliss, until his wife’s addiction escalates and she wanders from boutique to boutique like a junkie looking for the next fix.
Ichikawa refrained from filming the wife’s shopping trips in an obvious way. We merely see her beautiful shoes (a different pair each time) clicking on the pavement outside the boutique and then receding from a voice coming from the doorway: “Thank you, come again!”
“I thought this was a neat idea,” Ichikawa said. “After all that talk about buying clothes, the audience couldn’t see what she was wearing; they could only imagine her in expensive ensembles. And she was all decked out, believe me. But I never filmed her whole person, just her feet.”
When we do see her clothes, rows and rows of them are hanging in the “clothing room” of Tony’s condominium, where the sheer number of outfits and shoes had prompted the couple to clear a separate room just to accommodate them.
Before turning to film, Ichikawa had made some of Japan’s most influential commercials.
“I started out later in life than other people,” he said. “I was a procrastinator, and it took me a long time to figure out where I was going. I graduated from my arts university a little later than my classmates. But starting late meant I was much less immune to the joys of finally getting to make things – commercials, clips, movies, whatever. The sheer joy and enthusiasm has never left me. To this day, I still love what I do.”
When asked whether the pace of releasing a film each year was taxing, Ichikawa took a long drag and vigorously said no. “Quite simply, I can’t think of myself not working. That is my normal state.” He added that the pace had perhaps been possible because of his dislike for strong passion and displays of exaggerated emotion. “It’s just not in me to deal with things like that. To me, those are unrealistic and fake.”
His words recall a scene from “Tony Takitani” when Tony, who dramatically loses his wife, sits in absolute stillness at his work desk and seems to radiate a sadness so acute it hurts to look at the screen.
Such is the kind of moment, unspoken, that Ichikawa’s audiences have come to expect from him. It has a resonance more effective than a thousand declarations.