Wednesday, December 20, 2023

For the Murakami Fan: Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman

It is sort of like an animated Short Cuts, but weirder. By mixing and matching half a dozen stories (from various collections), American-born, European-based filmmaker Pierre Foldes may have cracked the code when it comes to adapting Haruki Murakami. The world is strange and sad, but also a little magical in Foldes’s Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, which is now available on DVD (a perfect gift for Murakami fans) from Kino Lorber.

It is a few days after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Most of Tokyo has gone back to business as usual, but not Komura-san’s wife Kyoko, who obsessively watches the grim news footage in a near-catatonic state—until she suddenly up and leaves him. Komura works with poor beleaguered salaryman Katagiri-san, whose boss is clearly setting him up to be fired. The bank wants Komura out too, but at least they are offering him a package.

While he thinks it over, Komura agrees to deliver a mystery box to a co-worker’s sister up in Hokkaido. Meeanwhile, Katagiri-san gets a strange proposal of his own, from a seven-foot frog. “Frog” as he likes to be called will collect on the bad debt plaguing Katagiri at the bank, if he will help the self-assured amphibian battle the giant subterranean worm that threatens to destroy Tokyo.

Yes, that is right. Makoto Shinkai’s
Suzume shares some plot points with a Murakami story. It is also the best of the intertwined narrative strands, because everybody loves giant frogs, right? You would have to be a Communist not to. Regardless, the unlikely relationship that develops between Katagiri and Frog wonderfully surreal and compelling.

He and Frog might be the best things going in
Blind Willow, but the rest of the film still works. The way Foldes combined different Murakami stories is quite savvy. As a result, the payoffs for each story amplify each other. They all seam to fit together seamlessly, like Robert Altman’s aforementioned treatment of Raymond Carver’s short stories.

The simplified rotoscoped animation also suits the themes and setting quite well. The photo-realistic look grounds the film in the everydayness of our world, whereas the animated overlay gives it a fantastical vibe. Rendering the “background extras” nearly transparent was an inspired touch.

Foldes managed to capture the essence of Murakami, but it would be challenging to distill a formula from
Blind Willow that would be scalable and replicable. That is why it is such a rewarding film. Highly recommended for fans of animation and Murakami, Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman is available on DVD for last minute shoppers.