‘Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman’ Review: Murakami Anthology Nails the Essence of an Unfilmable Author

Haruki Murakami doesn’t write in any particular genre — the Japanese literary giant is a genre. While his expansive bibliography has seen him dip his toe into everything from magical realism and hardboiled mysteries to straightforward literary fiction and fitness commentary, his singular worldview ensures that every genre he chooses to play with is bent to his will — never the other way around.

At this point, the novelist’s trademarks are known to anyone with even a passing interest in contemporary literature. His stories unfold like steam rising off a lake, flowing in seemingly directionless patterns before forming something indescribably beautiful. His protagonists are often ambitionless men who appear content to let life happen to them. But as they get sucked into increasingly surreal adventures, their passive dispositions and willingness to go along with things quickly make Murakami’s bizarre plots seem relatively normal.

By seamlessly shifting his focus between the mundane details of everyday life and the fantastical elements that he gradually introduces, he weaves delicate literary tapestries that are equally depressing and life affirming.

But the stylistic choices that made Murakami a god among writers are the same ones that have largely kept him out of Hollywood. As his novels gleefully break the conventional rules of storytelling, the only things keeping the train from going off the tracks are his crisp sentences and devastating command of language. His stories are often told in first-person, allowing his precise phrasing to act as the eyes and ears of his readers and protagonists at the same time.

It’s hard to imagine his most famous stories working in a world where the man himself doesn’t have complete control over every detail — so classics like “Kafka on the Shore” and “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” have long been deemed unfilmable by Murakami devotees. (Which isn’t to say that nobody was willing to try — the author is famous for turning down virtually every film pitch that comes his way.) For the vast majority of his 40-year career, Murakami’s cinephile fans have had to settle for the images that he conjures with his words.

There are some great exceptions to this rule — like Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s triumphant “Drive My Car” — but those films were based on some of Murakami’s most conventional, realistic works. It’s a rarity to see a serious Murakami adaptation that tries to bring his famous magical realism to the big screen.

Pierre Földes’ delightful new animated anthology “Blind Willow, Weeping Woman” shows that even the most Murakami-esque source material can be turned into cinema in the right hands. The film adapts several of the author’s short stories (from his collection of the same name), while also taking bits of material directly from larger works like “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.” The end result is a film that’s less notable for the journeys of its characters than for its ability to bottle up Murakami’s creative ethos. Anyone who is unfamiliar with his work could watch this movie and leave with a pretty solid understanding of what all the hype is about.

“Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman” takes place in the fallout of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake that devastated Japan, following an ensemble of middle aged characters as they deal with the trauma in different ways. Kyoko (Shoshana Wilder) has entered a state of catatonic shock, spending five straight days and nights staring at cable news coverage of the disaster. Her husband Komura (Ryan Bommarito) is understandably distressed by this, as his marriage is basically the only thing he has going for him. He’s perfectly content to work a mindless job at a massive bank before coming home to his wife each night, but he has no real interests to speak of.

Kyoko decides to flee Tokyo in the middle of the night, leaving her husband with nothing but a note asking him not to contact her. Komura decides to take a week off of work to process the shock, only to be informed by his boss that his position is likely to be eliminated soon. With the coinciding losses of both his marriage and career sending his life into a tailspin, he agrees to spend his vacation delivering a mysterious package on behalf of one of his coworkers.

But he’s not the only bank employee who’s having a bad week. Katagiri (Marcello Arroyo) is a sad 44-year-old debt collector who is in hot water over his inability to collect on a massive loan. After being informed that he’s likely to be a target in the upcoming round of layoffs, he gets home and finds a massive anthropomorphic frog sitting in his kitchen. The frog promises to solve his professional problems if Katagiri helps him fend off a giant worm attack that is apparently supposed to cause another deadly earthquake in a few days. Lacking any other options, the banker agrees to put his faith in the amphibian.

The stories gradually intertwine in true Murakami fashion, adding up to a beautifully incomplete portrait of regular people trying to navigate transitional moments in their lives. Both the textual and visual components of the film demonstrate an excellent understanding of Murakami’s style while still managing to introduce new cinematic elements to the stories.

The explicitly episodic nature of the script — with each of its seven chapters numerically labeled on screen — goes a long way towards capturing the feeling of reading a Murakami novel. And the artistic choice to shift back and forth between so many plot lines helps recreate the “absurd shit can happen, but nothing actually matters” vibe that his readers will know so well. Only in a Murakami story would a monster-induced earthquake that threatened to level Tokyo to rubble be waved off with all of the inconvenience of rescheduling a doctors appointment.

Földes’ animation style is an equally perfect fit for the source material. The film unfolds like a picture book for adults, adding an innocent quality to the stories of sad debt collectors and horny couriers. And while everything is drawn competently enough to advance the story, nothing is ever beautiful enough to merit the “I could hang that frame on my wall” reactions that great animated films often induce. That’s all to the film’s benefit, as it emphasizes the notion that all of these sacred things are happening in an utterly mundane world.

One would hope that any Murakami novices who enjoy the film use it as a jumping off point to some of his bigger novels. While the stories that made the film are quite charming, it ultimately lacks the narrative heft of his best works. Still, Földes’ movie succeeds as both a tribute to a living legend and a reminder that nothing is ever quite as unfilmable as it seems. “Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman” is far from the definitive Murakami movie. But for now, it’s one of the best ones we’ve got.

Grade: B+

Zeitgeist Films and Kino Lorber will release “Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman” in New York City, Los Angeles, and other select American markets on Friday, April 14.  

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