What can animation achieve that live action films cannot? And what sorts of stories are better equipped for one or the other? Nowhere are these questions more pressing than when it comes to adaptation, yet the default format—from Jane Austen’s oeuvre to Jurassic Park—is almost always live action. However, Pierre Földes’s new Haruki Murakami adaptation, Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, reveals exactly what animation can offer adaptation that live action cannot.
Sometimes adaptations are a simple translation from one form to another, like No Country for Old Men (2007), which, thanks to Cormac McCarthy’s clean prose and screenplay-ready structure, thoroughly resembles its source material. Other times, when an author’s style is less accommodating of the creative constraints of live action, sacrifices have to be made.
For example, John Huston’s adaptation of Under the Volcano strips Malcolm Lowry’s 400-page novel down to its essential plot beats, producing a mere dramatic reenactment in lieu of capturing the intense, rambling qualities of Lowry’s prose in cinematic form. This is often the tradeoff when it comes to the notoriously “unadaptable” work of authors such as James Joyce or Virginia Woolf: one overlooks the more striking aspects of the prose to meet the theatrical standards of live action.
For a long time, Murakami was considered to be among the ranks of “unadaptable” authors, but in the past few years, fans have been treated to some excellent adaptations of his work, including Burning (2018) and Drive My Car (2021). The former is based on “Barn Burning,” a short story that director Lee Chang-Dong transforms into a two-and-a-half-hour slow burn thriller infused with rich sociological subtext specific to his home country, South Korea. The latter is indebted to several stories from Murakami’s recent collection Men Without Women, which director Ryusuke Hamaguchi uses as the foundation for his drama about loss and performance. But if one watched either of these films without knowing they were Murakami adaptations, would one recognize them as such?
Murakami’s work often balances itself on a razor’s edge between the real and the imaginary. As a young woman in his story “Barn Burning” explains while pantomiming the disassembling of an orange, “It’s not a question of making yourself believe there is an orange there, you have to forget there isn’t one.” This sort of image is a staple of Murakami’s novels whose plots often center on disappearance: Norwegian Wood explores a relationship that begins after the loss of a shared friend; The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle revolves around Toru Okada’s search for his missing cat; and the titular story of The Elephant Vanishes begins, “When the elephant disappeared from our town’s elephant house, I read about it in the newspaper.” Another way of phrasing this is that his stories are articulations of the absences, real or imagined, that shape the character’s lives: movements that indicate the absence of the orange.
Burning emphasizes this aspect of Murakami’s work when Hae-mi literally performs the orange pantomime from the short story. But there is another, more inventive cinematic realization of this aspect of Murakami’s prose later in the film. I’m thinking of the scene, before her disappearance, when Hae-mi dances to Miles Davis’s “Générique” before a sunset view.
The camera follows her arms as they express the movement of a bird in flight. As the music fades out, the camera moves away from her and momentarily loses focus across a brushstroke sky, then regains clarity with a pan across the mountains toward the border of the country where we faintly make out the sound of North Korean broadcasts: a potential clue to Hae-mi’s disappearance, even if the answer to that mystery is ultimately unresolved.
Focus pulls later in the film remind us of this nagging insight into her disappearance without ever giving us a straight answer. Obviously these visual details do not exist in Murakami’s story, nor does the dance scene as a whole, but the way Lee Chang-Dong’s camera calls attention to Hae-mi and the geography around her encourages the same fixation in the viewer that those offbeat details in the story generate in the reader.
Földes’s new animated adaptation finds a way of lending concreteness to this aspect of Murakami that feels like a more faithful realization of the writer’s fantastical prose.
Near the beginning of Drive My Car, the unexpected death of Kafuku’s partner, Oto, becomes a literal absence felt throughout the rest of the film. But it is Hamaguchi’s intertextual storytelling technique that stands out as his major stylistic adaptation of Murakami’s absences.
Take the babel of languages in Kafuku’s Uncle Vanya rehearsals or the ways in which Hamaguchi uses lines from Uncle Vanya to reflect back on dramatic moments in the film. These story elements recall Murakami’s proclivity for folding international voices and external source material into his narratives. (As his story “Scheherezade” begins, “Each time they had sex, she told Habara a strange and gripping story afterwards. Like Queen Scheherazade in A Thousand and One Nights.
Though, of course, Habara, unlike the king, had no plan to chop off her head the next morning.”) More to the point, the way each character responds to Uncle Vanya becomes a way of outlining their interior state, much like the multilingual production draws attention away from the language and toward the gestures that express it. As Kafuku says, “Chekov is terrifying. When you say his lines, it drags out the real you.”
These adaptations are befitting of Murakami because they capture and expand upon this aspect of his work through the formal advantages of live action filmmaking: cinematography and performance. However, like the absences they articulate, the films indicate a substantial aspect of Murakami’s work that a more faithful adaptation would not miss: the fantastical.
Perhaps that is because these live action films are predominantly the products of directors whose works are written within the bounds of realist storytelling. Thus, while they draw inspiration from Murakami, they do not recall him in full. Luckily, Pierre Földes’s new animated adaptation finds a way of lending concreteness to this aspect of Murakami that feels like a more faithful realization of the writer’s fantastical prose.
For starters, Blind Willow is a patchwork of several Murakami stories linked together through clever abridgements and associative visuals. Its structure recalls a line from Norwegian Wood in which the narrator, Toru Watanabe, describes Naoko’s storytelling style: “Each tale had its own internal logic, but the link from one to the next was odd. Before you knew it, Story A had turned into Story B contained in A, and then came C from something in B, with no end in sight.”
In Blind Willow, to borrow Watanabe’s language: Story A begins when Komura realizes his wife, Kyoko, has not stopped watching television since news about the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami started airing—a fixation that lasts until their cable goes out, prompting her to pack up and leave Komura forever. As she explains to him in a letter, “You have nothing inside you can give me… Living with you is like living with a chunk of air.” The line follows Komura throughout the film as he seeks a new path forward. Meanwhile, Story B follows Katagiri, Komura’s co-worker, who gets recruited by a talking frog (named Frog) to save Tokyo from a major earthquake.
His task is to provide Frog with moral support during his battles with the giant Worm who, left unchecked, could prompt the quake that devastates Tokyo. Finally, Story C follows Kyoko as she reflects on one earth-shifting moment in her past: an odd visit to the room of the hotel owner she used to work for. The whole film seems to revolve around this memory, in which the owner grants Kyoko a wish on her twentieth birthday that raises some central questions about the complicated relationship between reality and imagination.
The visual motifs in Földes’s animation deepen these structural overlaps, echoing across the film like the “chunk of air” refrain that haunts Komura. The most noticeable of these motifs is the white outlining that renders characters as phantom presences in different parts of the movie—a visual invention on Földes’s part that complicates the relationship between the real and the imaginary.
In Komura’s story, the motif lends a concreteness to his sense of alienation. At first it takes the form of Kyoko when she appears as an apparition before Komura while he sits alone at a bar—a haunting reminder of the stranger she has become to him. When he reaches out to touch her, she disappears. Later in the film, after Komura returns from a strange trip to Hokkaido, even more mystified than when he left, Földes animates a white outline lifting off his body while his solid form remains in a lawn chair below. In adjusting to life after Kyoko’s departure, he has become a stranger even to himself.
Murakami’s refinement of style over the years has been a refinement of some suspended reality.
In Katagiri’s story, the white outline motif has a different resonance, like the more fantastical elements of Murakami’s work. For him, the phantom white outlines are pedestrians: their transparent bodies—colored with the backgrounds of train cars and public smoking areas—suggest Katagiri’s alienation from his fellow citizens as if all of reality were a manifestation of the lonely and inconsequential existence he imagines for himself. Frog, on the other hand, is drawn as a foil to that reality: a solid green flesh-and-blood rendering who, although imaginary, helps Katagiri solve a major issue at work that results in his promotion.
This is Földes’s true deviation from the live action adaptations and a reminder of the inverse aspect of Murakami’s work: an emphasis on how imagination can rescue people from their own shortcomings. Whereas Komura’s aimless journey to Hokkaido drives him further and further from reality until he becomes a ghost to himself, Katagiri’s journey with Frog grounds him and helps him to see his true purpose in life.
This is just one example of how Földes’s animated feature embraces Murakami’s trademark surrealism to produce an audiovisual experience that fills every box on the Murakami bingo sheet, from missing cats and talking animals to ethereal dreamworlds and phantom beings. Obviously, animation comes in handy when exploring these more fantastical elements of his work.
No doubt, some of these elements could be achieved in live-action via computer graphics integration and LED soundstages, but there is something about the expressiveness of traditional animation that allows for deeper immersion in a suspended reality. When computer graphics get too ambitious, they start to feel separate from the fabric of the live action footage—oddly weightless or lacking in texture—but in animation, it all coheres the same way that sheep men roaming sterile hotel hallways cohere on the page in Dance, Dance, Dance. It yields an increased range of visual possibilities while maintaining a unity of style.
Given that so much of Murakami’s work obscures the boundary between what is real and imaginary, achieving that seamless quality between the two is essential. Thanks to Földes’s animation, one believes in the logical consistencies between the normal and abnormal elements of the stories across Blind Willow even as they take stylistic turns, from the watercolor willow trees of Komura’s dreams to the scribbly phantom man who attacks Katagiri on the street.
Occasionally these fantasy details are even woven into the more mundane settings, like when the train Komura rides north to Hokkaido temporarily takes the form of the Worm from Frog and Katagiri’s story, or when the clouds outside his airplane hold the image of Kyoko watching the earthquake footage in their apartment.
It would be difficult to execute these more surreal moments in live action, whether from an aesthetic or a budgetary standpoint. However, there is another reason why animation proves advantageous to Földes, which has to do with the specific kind of animation he uses, for which the film has drawn some criticism. As Claire Shaffer observed of the film’s rotoscope-adjacent style, which uses live action performances as the source material for the hand-drawn frames, “while beautiful and striking at times, the uncanny depiction of the film’s human subjects may alienate some viewers.”
Couldn’t the same be said of Murakami’s writing? While there is something uncanny about a performance that has been traced rather than invented frame-by-frame, Shaffer misses what works about that uncanniness as a stylistic choice. Murakami’s refinement of style over the years has been a refinement of some suspended reality in which his characters have profound, highly articulate conversations with one another, to the point that their interactions can feel a bit alien.
The greatest gift that animation offers is not just fantastical visual interpretation, but the freedom to completely reimagine reality.
Kyoko’s wish-granting story, for example, is surreal, not in the magical wish-granting sense but in the way that Kyoko reacts to the owner’s invitation to invite her into his room for a wish on her twentieth birthday. In live action, there might have been something off-putting about this scene, whether in the more apparent age difference between the characters or in the execution of the unusually formal dialogue.
Through the rotoscope-esque animation, one more readily accepts the awkwardness as a reflection of the source material. It evokes that feature of Murakami’s literary universe, in which characters inhabit dreamlike scenarios with the same matter-of-factness as their day jobs. Later, when asked whether she regretted her wish, Kyoko undermines any magical effect the wish might have had, underscoring the realism of the story: “No matter what they wish for, no matter how far they go, people can never be anything but themselves.”
This line feels like another gesture toward that border between the real and the imaginary in Murakami’s work as it invokes another binary between “real” live-action cinema and the “imaginary” world of animation. As this scene demonstrates, sometimes animation is better suited to stories we more immediately associate with realism.
The greatest gift that animation offers is not just fantastical visual interpretation, but the freedom to completely reimagine reality through the paring down of visual information. The hand-drawn recreation of reality through moving images feels like a way of alluding to the essence of a performance, an object, a setting, a movement. It focuses the meaning of the images and reveals what is important to the animators in the same way that details in a sentence reveal the concerns of a novelist.
An interesting literary adaptation turned animated feature is Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises (2013), based on both Tatsuo Hori’s novel The Wind Has Risen and the life of aircraft designer Jiro Horikoshi. It would be easy to imagine a Spielbergian live action adaptation of the same source material, but it is Miyazaki’s animation that pulls two sources together in the way only animation can.
Like his other work, Miyazaki’s fascination with the natural world is distilled through the attentiveness of his pen to every movement of nature. In this way, the wind becomes a character in the film, captured in the movement of every plane wing, grassy field, billowing pant leg, and flowing dress. In attending to each of these gentle, mundane movements, he highlights their grace and beauty in a way only hand-drawn animation can achieve.
In Földes’s film, this broader virtue of animation comes through in the cats—not that there is anything special about the way Földes animates them. More so, it is the fact that animation itself is capable of capturing Murakami’s ideal beings as they really are, which is something I haven’t seen before in live action. I suppose the 2016 documentary Kedi is an exception, but that is because its filmmakers conform the film to their documentary subjects rather than trying to force the cats to conform to their movie.
Perhaps it is their independent nature that makes cats such bad performers: they have no interest in meeting the needs of their live action productions. Occasionally, productions manage to shape the behavior of their feline stars with some clever editing and tedious animal wrangling tactics, but even when the desired behavior is achieved, anytime I look into the eyes of a cat on screen, it breaks the spell of the movie for me. Like CGI, the cat feels separate from the fabric of the film.
Animation, on the other hand, honors its cat subjects by utilizing its freedom of expression to render their movements in the style of the film. When Komura dreams of his missing cat as another phantom presence in the film, it evokes some purer existence he cannot reach in his aimless state and becomes a way of being to aspire toward.
In rendering these images of cats and ghosts and reinterpreting them in different character contexts, Földes provides a deeper understanding of what Murakami’s stories offer their readers. He emphasizes the dialectic of the real and the imaginary that underlies Murakami’s work, revealing the outlines and the solid forms alike, and leaving viewers anxious to return to the novels to sort out their meanings all over again.