Sad Stories and Haruki Murakami

Posted by on Sep 8, 2014 in Recent Posts, The Stripboard

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Two weeks ago, when riding my bicycle to a lunch date with my mother, I was involved in an accident. The details are unimportant, but I ended up in the emergency room, and was informed quite frankly by several different doctors that I was lucky to be alive.

I took this knowledge to heart, and have attempted to understand just how lucky I am to be alive in the time since the day that, by all counts, I could have very easily ceased to exist. This isn’t particularly relevant to film, education, or my business aspirations, but the knowledge is necessary in order to understand the state of mind that I currently find myself in, and what sort of thoughts that state of mind has brought me to conceive.

A few days into the period of deep thought that I imagine often follows such close encounters with death, I found myself at a local bookshop. After browsing for about an hour and finding nothing of any real interest, the cover design of what I later learned to be Haruki Murakami’s latest publication caught my eye. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

Image links to a pretty thorough review, but there are spoilers!

An interesting title, with an interesting cover, by an author that I had been meaning to read for ages but had just never quite gotten around to.

I purchased and finished the book a few days later.

I was enthralled by Murakami’s writing style, and was struck with the idea that the book might make a good film. While a translation from the author’s native Japanese, and therefore a somewhat different read than what the original prose might have intended, Colorless features a non-linear storytelling approach that lends itself to creating remarkably well thought out character development. The entire piece is firmly rooted in a somewhat Kafka-esque philosophy (likely stemming from years of human observation and critical analysis) and while somewhat cynical, is incredibly self-aware in the sense that Murakami clearly recognizes the long-term effects of human interaction on the individual’s sense of self, both in the positive and negative senses.

Murakami giving a 2005 lecture at MIT. (Wikipedia)

He understands that a large portion of his reading audience suffers from a profound sense of confusion that is created by the advertising, marketing, and degradation of human nature in modern society, and has learned over the course of his writing career that it is often important to explain the ideological drives behind many of his characters to this generation’s readers. Unlike other existential authors of ages past like Sartre or Nietzsche, Murakami has taken the steps necessary to blend the worlds of absurdity and reality to make some of the finer points of existential philosophy more easily accessible to a larger, possibly more uneducated, audience—a process that I believe needs to be applied to films more frequently to aid in the delivery of a message to a larger viewer base.

After a week or so of casual research into some of Murakami’s other works, I found a film adaptation of one of his short stories (“On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning”) created by Yamakawa Naoto called A Girl, She is 100 Percent (1983). After watching the piece, I was more convinced of my earlier thoughts that Murakami’s works could create excellent pieces of cinema due to their high-level of cerebral thought, somewhat heavy-handed symbolism, and the balance that the author seems to seek between realism and absurdity.

100 Percent follows very closely Murakami’s original version of the story: a man and a woman (both in their early 30s) pass each other on the street, and the viewer/ reader is given the perspective of the man, who realizes that the is a perfect match for him in every way, but he lets her walk on, convinced that there is no way to bring this point of view to her attention in an effective manner. He realizes too late what it is he should have told her, and goes on to inform the viewer/ reader of the story he would have told her if he could have convinced her to converse with him for half an hour or so.

The story he wished to tell would have begun with “Once upon a time” and ended with “A sad story, don’t you think?” Once upon a time, then, a boy and a girl who passed each other on the street in their youth, realized that (much like the man in the root story) they were each other’s “100% matches”. They sit at a nearby park, speak, and decide after a short conversation that, while they are perfect for one another, their meeting so easily was simply not possible. They decide, mutually, to go their separate ways, feeling that if they were truly meant to be together, they would find each other again someday and if they both still felt the same way, they would marry then and there. The boy walked one way, the girl another, and they lived their lives separately. In the years following, both came down with serious cases of influenza and, each independently of the other, lost their memories of childhood as the fever put them near death. They both recovered, and their individualistic spirits guided them to become driven, strong people who relentlessly pursued their goals and recovered from the tragedy of losing their memories to the empty space of time. Years later, the boy and girl (in their early 30s now), pass each other on the same street, just as they did all those years ago. They stop, look at each other, and while recognition flashes in their eyes, the memory is simply no longer present, and they walk on, never to meet again. The storyteller (and Murakami) both end their tales here, with the line “A sad story, don’t you think?”

A simple story, simply told, and simply recreated by Yamakawa two years after its original publication, features some interesting cinema graphic techniques that make it stand out among the vast sea of short films that exist today. To begin with, there are three different periods of time involved in the story: the root story, where the man and woman pass on the street, the man’s telling of the younger couple meeting, and then the man’s telling of the same couple meeting when they were older. Each of these three time periods is given a distinct visual feel by Yamakawa, presumably to make it easier for the viewer to understand what they are looking at.

The first time period, the root story, is very clearly set in a contemporary time and place during the time of the film’s creation, 1983. It shows several takes of the man and woman walking past one another at various speeds and from different angles before transitioning to showing the man speaking about the encounter to two individuals in a restaurant. They ask him how he knows it was the perfect match, inquiring about her physical features, to which the man replies that she isn’t particularly beautiful, and in fact, nothing about her physical appearance stood out to him especially. They inquire as to how, then, he knew she was the perfect girl. Did he speak to her? Did he follow her home? “No,” the man replies, “I simply walked on”. All three agree that the situation was very strange, and the viewer is left nodding their head in agreement. “Yes,” the viewer might think, “that would be a very strange interaction.”

An internal monologue begins where the man degrades himself for being unable to work up the courage to speak with her, and the film changes aspect ratio to bring the viewer to the perspective that the man is now internalizing his thoughts. While the original film was recorded on 16mm color film and displayed at 24fps, this monologue appears as a slideshow of still images at about 3fps. It is a memory, played from the man’s perspective, of the encounter earlier that morning. We watch as the woman walks past him multiple times, and the man finds himself focusing on different parts of her as he replays the memory over and over. He imagines her turning around one time, and walking straight down the street another. He wonders what they would have talked about if they had the chance. Wondered what the rest of the day spent with her on a date would have been like in a mixture of still photography, slideshow, and film of non-moving objects. A movie, dinner, drinks, and then possibly sex in a hotel room. Yamakawa shows, with the man standing in front of a storefront (in noticeably nicer dress than the earlier moment where he actually met the woman), the man’s thoughts as he wonders what he could have said to her to make such a reality take place, eventually settling on a candid approach and telling her “Hello there, you are a girl who is 100% me.” He fears rejection, though, and in a reverse shot, we see the woman reply “Sorry, even if I am 100% you, you see, you’re not 100% me.” We watch her stand in the screen as the man’s internal monologue rolls forward again, contemplating what he would say if confronted with such a response to brutal honesty. He decides that everything he could have thought to say would indeed have proved entirely impractical, and eventually settles on the aforementioned story… but of course by this point, the girl that he wishes to pursue has been gone for some time.

Transitioning with still frames of the sky on a clear blue day to the sky on a cloudy day, we watch as the boy and the girl meet one another, in a black and white world that, much like the man’s memory, is animated with an almost stop-motion, around 10fps slideshow. Frames were likely cut out of the original 16mm recording to achieve this effect. The boy and the girl are both red, standing out in stark contrast to their environments as two people who are connected in a very visible way. This coloring was achieved by drawing on the negatives and then re-exposing them onto color film, of course, and Yamakura took the opportunity while he was drawing on the frames to make the man’s internal dialogue about the couple slightly more visual. He drew, with a white/ silver marking pen, hearts around the couple when they met, and then a dashed line that falls from the top of the frame and makes its way towards the bottom when the boy and the girl express their doubts that they could have met so easily.

By a mixture of both photographs that might be found in a family album, and images that fry themselves into our memories for reasons unknown (a storefront, or a cigarette in an ashtray on the coffee stand), we watch the pair grow up separately. When they meet other lovers, color is re-introduced to the black and white monotony of the photograph series. The boy and his love take a blue color, while the girl and her love take on a yellow. They pass each other on the road, and as they look at each other, just for a moment, both of them turn red before flashing back to their earlier colors.

It is, as Murakami says, a sad story. It speaks of the profound sense of loss that we as human beings feel when we miss an opportunity and know there is no way to relive or retrieve it. The finality of the yellow and blue colors chosen by Yamakura are in stark contrast to the red that the couple experiences together– there is no mistake in the fact that they are different people now, and while it is possible to make the right choices at the right times, Murakami and Yamakura both strive to inform the audience that we cannot, even if we had the ability to recognize ourselves as being a certain way, change who we are. This message carries itself through Colorless Tsukuru, as well, and I found it rather surprising that Murakami, while not recognizing Yamakura’s short film as an official replication of his story, came to use the same vehicle (color) to deliver much of his symbolic messages (which happen to touch on several of the core ideas in 100 Percent) in Colorless.  

Personally, the idea of playing with color as a storytelling technique isn’t something that had occurred to me as a viable tool until seeing this piece, but this is more a tendency to tell stories through composition than a symptom of my physical condition. Yamakura takes something that was never mentioned in the original short story and uses it as a primary directive for helping the viewer to understand the purpose behind the sub-story’s existence: the story of the couple meeting up again, in a traditional fairy tale (which always begins with “Once upon a time…”) the couple would have recognized one another, just as they did in Murakami’s version, and after a moment of hesitance, embraced, instantly remembering the time they met all those years ago. And yet… there is no recognition, no embrace, no happy ending. Murakami and Yamakura have, together, woven a fairy tale with one of the saddest, yet realistic endings one could conceive. To find true love and happiness, ruin it with a sliver of doubt, and then revisit the same place, years later, with no recollection of the other person. Neither of them can even feel the heartbreak that only the audience is privy to.

I believe Murakami’s works would, if adapted properly, create some truly beautiful films… if, that is, the proper care is taken to create them in an appropriate style. Research tells me that one of his books, Norwegian Wood, has been adapted to a feature, and various short films have been created through the years based on some of short stories, so evidently I’m not the only one who shares in this perception, though I’ll need to watch some more of the adaptations in order to form a solid opinion on whether or not anybody has done his writing justice. In the case of A Girl, She is 100% Perfect, at least, I believe the adaptation to enhance the original piece, though I would be keenly interested in learning how Murakami feels about it!

-Matt

(Background pic: Jerome, Az, 2013)

 

 

Links:

On Seeing The 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning (Short Story)

A Girl, She is 100% Perfect (Short Film)