Haruki Murakami's world finally hits the silver screen
It's a territory no major Japanese director had dared to tread: the adaptation of Haruki Murakami's fiction.
Though a Japanese film industry survey showed that 80 percent of Japanese films are adaptations -- from popular manga or award-winning novels -- one of the bestselling domestic authors of the past 25 years has pretty much been ignored.
"As a commercial venture, it's just too risky. The material is just too close to the average Japanese moviegoer who is almost always a book lover as well," says an advertising executive (who prefers not to give his name) at Toho Inc.
All god's children dance, especially in Los Angeles
But this fall and winter, the Pandora's Box yawns open, if only halfway -- to emit a whopping three films based on Haruki Murakami stories.
The first to kick off was "All God's Children Can Dance," a provocative tale of a young man's quest to seek out his father.
The director is Robert Logevall, based in Los Angeles, and "All God's Children Can Dance" marks his feature debut. "As a first-time feature director, just the idea of taking on Murakami might not have been such a bright move," says Logevall, who had polished a career in TV and production design before tackling the project.
"It is a tall task to use such layered and beautiful material to craft your film from, on top of it being your first," he says.
Logevall was shrewd enough not to attempt too much -- instead of transporting himself and a film crew out to Tokyo where the story is originally based, he assembled a U.S. cast that includes the illustrious Joan Chen, Sonia Kinski (Natasha's daughter) and Jason Lew, who had acted on the stage and teaches screenwriting at New York University.
With the exception of the protagonist, the character names were changed to U.S. ones, and it all unfolds in Korea town, Los Angeles.
"By taking the movie and cast away from Japan I found a little more freedom and a little less pressure of living up to such high standards," says Logevall.
The result is a gorgeously shot, heavily sensual version of "All God's Children Can Dance" and box office sales have marched to a good start since the movie opened on October 30 in Japan.
I once had a girl
The anxiously awaited "Norwegian Wood" opens December 11 -- arguably the best known of Murakami novels that, upon its first publication in 1987, was declared to have kick-swerved the course of Japanese literature forever.
Two million copies sold in the first six months and Murakami later said in an interview that as soon he sent out the manuscript, he and his wife fled the country to escape the media onslaught.
"Norwegian Wood" was also among the first of Murakami's works to become an off-shore bestseller, and Japanese TV reports showed literature lovers from Lisbon to Vancouver poring over the pages in appropriately moody cafes.
Who better to direct this emotional, tragic, sex-laden story than Vietnam's Tran Anh Hung, who made his name with the delicately atmospheric "The Scent of Green Papaya" before diversifying to much more ambitious, violence-packed vehicles like "Cyclo."
Hung's last film had been "I Come With the Rain," co-starring Japanese pop wunderkind Takuya Kimura of SMAP two years back, and already there was talk that he was testing the waters of working with a Japanese cast and staff.
Unlike Logevall, Hung shot "Norwegian Wood" in Japanese, and has made sure the dialog and storyline stays true to the original novel.
Hung also assembled his cast with meticulous care, picking Japanese cinema industry favorite Kenichi Matsuyama to play the protagonist Watanabe. The difficult, extremely nuanced role of Watanabe's love object Naoko, goes to Rinko Kikuchi -- currently the most sought-after Japanese actress in the global film scene since her astonishing performance in "Babel (2006)."
A hold-up for bread
Not all of Murakami's works weigh so heavily on the senses, and some are more amenable to film adaptations than others.
"Personally, I wouldn't attempt to make a movie out of 'The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles' or 'The End of the World and the Hard-Boiled Wonderland.' Those stories… well they're just too much!" says Carlos Cuaron, one of Mexico's best known filmmakers after collaborating with his brother Alfonso on "Y Tu Mama Tambien" in 2001.
Cuaron teamed up with producer Lucas Akoskin to make a short film based on a Murakami story, and their choice was the darkly funny, nonsensical "The Second Bakery Attack." Japanese critics have often described it like a modernist painting, melted and poured onto book pages.
Like Logevall, Cuaron ultimately decided to take the material away from Japan (though he did some major location hunting in Tokyo) and Japanese characters, and to put together the package in a little town close to the Mexican border in Texas.
Having said that, he wasn't about to stint production value or the cast: the two leads are played by Kirsten Dunst and Brian Gerghaty (from the "Hurt Locker"), and Akoskin himself steps in to fill another key role.
"It's short, but there's meticulous attention to detail just like a Murakami story!" says Cuaron. Indeed, the story's obsessive attachment to certain music, foods and moments in a person's past -- are reenacted with loving attention, as well as a finickiness that defines the ambiance. It's pure Murakami, and Cuaron has it down.
"To me, Murakami's works are universal, and at the same time very Japanese. This is what makes the project so intriguing for me -- I did set the story in the United States but the tone of the conversations, the situation … somehow it's very Tokyo."
A pivotal sequence has a newly married couple (it's only their third week) vowing to patch up an already fraying relationship with a serious session of carbo-loading.
"Would an American couple suggest that kind of thing? I don't think so!" laughs Cuaron.
A sign of more to come?
Both Cuaron and Logevall are clearly enamored with Murakami's material and Tran Anh Hung has professed to be a Murakami/Japanese literature fan since his teens. "I think overall, that Murakami's works are challenging to adapt, but they're not in the realm of the impossible," says Cuaron.
"What's wonderful is that his world is always open to personal interpretation, and I think that's because he's very familiar with American literature."
Cuaron (himself an English literature major) says he catches whiffs of F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulker in Murakami's writings and can relate to that very well.
Logevall also says Murakami's prose invites interpretation, which in turn makes it easier for the filmmaker to explore different possibilities.
Now that the ice has finally been broken, hopefully the Japanese moviegoer can look forward to more Murakami adaptations, set on home ground or across the ocean.
"The Second Bakery Attack" is on for the month of November at the Brilla Theater in Yokohama, and also available from the comfort of your home in Japan at J:COM VOD.