Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman
2023, NR, 108 min. Directed by Pierre Földes. Voices by Marcelo Arroyo, Ryan Bommarito, Shoshana Wilder, Michael Czyz, Zag Dorison, Jesse Noah Gruman, Katharine King So, John Vamvas, Nadia Verrucci.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., June 2, 2023
French animated feature Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman (originally titled Saules aveugles, femme endormie) adapts a selection from three of Japanese author Haruki Murakami's collections of short stories: The Elephant Vanishes (1993), after the quake (2000), and Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman (2006). However, it's arguably mistitled, since composer-turned-writer/director Pierre Földes draws most heavily from that 2000 anthology. That collection was a response to the 1995 Kobe earthquake, but Földes specifically decontextualizes the seemingly disconnected events into three loose, parallel narratives set in the wake of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami.
Földes refocuses the sprawling anti-narrative of the huge collection of short stories into the adventures, such as they are, of two salarymen: The aging and increasingly desperate Katagiri (Arroyo) and his younger but no less disconnected colleague Komura (Bommarito). Both work at a savings and loan, and both are considering exactly what they're doing with their lives. Not that their ruminations are without prompting: Komura's listless and depressed wife, Kyoko (Wilder), has walked out, telling him that being with him is like being with air, while Katagiri gets visited by a man-sized frog who tells him that they must team up to save Tokyo from a giant worm that has been feeding on human activity and vibration.
So, a little removed from the dark interpersonal relationship dramas of Murakami's other works that have been adapted for the screen: 2012's Norwegian Wood (adapted from his novel of the same name), 2018's Burning (adapted from the short story "Barn Burning"), and most recently 2021's Oscar-winning Drive My Car (another extended short story adaptation, this time from 2014 collection Men Without Women). Földes is more interested in the peculiar and fantastical elements of the author's work, which have mostly evaded translation, and he takes a very sharp razor to trim his selection into something like a singular shape.
This version of Murakami's vision is undoubtedly bound together by Földes' innovative animation technique of motion-captured performances translated into 3D models and then hand-animated into 2D. Capable of feeling both dreamlike and mundane with the same understated, muted tones, all while expressing those odder aspects of the author's work that have so far evaded directors who have sought something more capital-S serious, Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman is no less insightful into the mercurial vicissitudes of the human condition, but it still finds space for Murakami the fabulist. Moreover, Földes manages to balance the potentially dissonant tones of the diverse source material and create something akin to a story, one with diversions created as side characters relate elements of some of the smaller chapters within the books as anecdotes and memories. Some are tragic, some are erotic, some are simply stories, yet that also taps into a key element of Murakami's approach to narrative: That his characters often exchange long anecdotes that become vehicles for his subtext. Similarly, Földes replicates the writer's willingness for a story to be open-ended, and while Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman may not give audiences the conventional ending that they expect, that's not its purpose. That these catatonic characters – Katagiri, Komura, and Kyoko – find a life beyond these particular stories is.