Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman
March 27, 2023 · 0 comments
by Jeremy Clarke.
This animated feature based on six Haruki Murakami short stories comes not, as you might expect, from Japan, but rather from one of the few other countries that can reasonably be said to have an animation industry: France. Writer-director Pierre Földes, whose father Peter is an award-winning animator, further confounds expectations by refusing to follow the portmanteau format that would present the tales as a series of separate episodes. Instead, he finds common themes, takes them apart then fits them back into a complete whole, creating in the process a story bigger than the sum of its original constituent parts. The six, some but not all of which come from the published collection Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, are: Superfrog Saves Tokyo, UFO in Kushiro, Birthday Girl – Dabchick, Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, Tuesday’s Women and the novel The Wind–Up Bird Chronicle.
It opens with a man descending a spiral staircase to an underground walkway. But then, the whole edifice starts to shake in the beginnings of an earthquake. Then a man (voice: Ryan Bommarito) is lying in bed, so this descent and walking would appear to have been a dream. (It’s not. In fact, it later turns out to be a wraparound, framing device.) His wife Kyoko (voice: Shoshana Wilder) is not in bed. A title informs us that we’re in Tokyo a few days after the 2011 earthquake. He gets up and finds her sitting in her underwear, transfixed by the 24-hour rolling news coverage of the disaster. He can’t get her to come back to bed as she won’t move from the sofa.
Everyone, it seems, is listening to the coverage of the disaster. A few hours later, another salaryman has breakfast while listening to this coverage on a portable radio. Before you can say Perfect Blue, he’s dozing off on the overhead rail commute into work, the only solid presence as everyone else appears to be slightly transparent, trapped in an alternate dream reality where he’s flying forward pot-bellied through the air inside a giant worm which proceeds in the same direction.
Many of his fellow employees at the Tokyo Security Trust Bank are as transparent as his fellow train passengers. One who isn’t is Kyoko’s husband, who shares a coffee with another colleague in a work break as he explains Kyoko’s bizarre situation. “It’s as though I don’t exist,” the husband says. At the same time at home, Kyoko is woken up from sleep on the sofa by the TV news suddenly cutting to black, then imagines herself as a person composed of doodled lines swimming through a dark, underwater forest in a vision not unlike the salaryman’s forward flight inside a giant worm: the sense of proceeding forward though an unfamiliar place with no idea of what’s ahead or what exactly is going on. Has she lost all sense of purpose?
Meanwhile, the salaryman, whose name is Mr. Katagiri (voice: Marcelo Arroyo), is on the receiving end of a stern speech by his superior about a seven hundred million yen loan which Katagiri has not yet managed to recover from a difficult client. And his sister phones to try to borrow money from him too.
The six stories are skilfully woven around these three main characters into a single, somewhat episodic and meandering one by Földes. Longer and meandering doesn’t, in this instance, mean bad. The whole thing drags you in slowly, and there’s something compelling about it.
In one of the stories, Kyoko leaves her husband, instructing him not to try and find her. There’s an ongoing story about their cat Watanabe, named after a neighbour, who appears to have gone missing. What actually happened to the cat is revealed at the end of the film, but in the meantime, he turns up (or is referred to in expectation of his appearance) in a number of other stories, his most bizarre appearance comprising sitting on the lap of a beautiful naked woman in a dream forest.
In another, possibly the most memorable tale of the lot, Katagiri is visited at home by a human-sized talking frog (voice: Pierre Földes) – called Frog – who wants his help battling a giant worm who threatens to cause a second earthquake. This is obvious kaiju territory, but if you come expecting a giant monster and urban devastation, you’re likely to be disappointed. There is lots of urban devastation, but it’s all background, life in the aftermath of the earthquake news reports, and lots of major dramatic upheaval in the three main characters’ lives.
Kyoko’s abandoned husband, whose name is eventually revealed to be Komura, gets several of the stories when he’s not losing himself in memories of Kyoko, making up a story about flies from a blind willow entering a sleeping woman’s ear, sending her to sleep and eating up her flesh. One of the Komura stories involves a woman’s encounter with a UFO, another involves two girls at a love hotel while a third has him sitting in a neighbour’s garden on a deck chair, talking to the neighbour’s bored teenage daughter after he’s been looking for the missing cat.
The whole thing was shot in live-action, which was then used as reference material for drawing the animation, so the movement of the characters and the pacing of the narrative feel much like a live-action film. And yet, at the same time, there’s no denying this is animation, and it feels like it too. Földes is a musician who initially thought of his film in terms of musical composition, so it possesses a pleasing, almost non-narrative flow. The result is highly effective, but not really like anything else out there.
The film, incidentally, is in English. Or, at least, the version we’re getting in the UK is – the financing for the film is a mixture of pan-European with a largely French component and Canadian with both English and (Québécois) French components, so there is also a French version, which we’re unlikely to see on these shores. Even when it arrives on Blu-ray and DVD in due course, rights issues mean we’ll probably only see the English. But that’s fine, because the film was made in both languages at once, with neither being the main one nor the translation after the fact. So unlike an English dub of a foreign film, where – even in animation – it’s possible to lose certain nuances, either the English or the French version is to all intents and purposes the original (i.e. each is, they both are).
Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman is released in the UK on 31st March 2023.
Jeremy Clarke’s new website is jeremycprocessing.com
cinema, France, Haruki Murakami, Japan, Jeremy Clarke
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