Collecting Dust

Tony Takitani (2004)

Strand Releasing

“All we do / Crumbles to the ground though we refuse to see.”
—Kansas, “Dust in the Wind” (1977)

Iown four copies of
Tony Takitani: a Japanese DVD, two different American DVDs, and an Amazon digital edition. These repeat purchases give the impression that I adore the movie—that multiple viewings over the years have provided me with some measure of joy, comfort, even catharsis. I don’t know if any of that is actually true. In fact, I’m not even sure what compelled me to buy four copies of the same movie in the first place. I do know that Tony Takitani has left an indelible impression on me—whether I like it or not.

As viewing experiences go, Tony Takitani is not exactly a feel-good movie. Director Jun Ichikawa’s 2004 adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s 1990 short story of the same name focuses on the title character’s tragic romance with a woman who changes his life for the better, only to leave as unexpectedly as she enters. Like its literary predecessor, the film offers a haunting meditation on loneliness and loss, with Ichikawa faithfully translating Murakami’s prose to the big screen.

I first saw Tony Takitani in 2005 during its American theatrical run. I was taken aback by the film’s distinctive style: the conspicuous left-to-right camera movement, the recurring mise-en-scène, and the unexpected interplay between the voiceover narration and the characters’ dialogue. After the credits rolled, I left the theater somewhat baffled by what I had just witnessed. And yet, through my confusion, I still felt a sense of kinship with the protagonist. 

I was already predisposed to like Tony. Although I wasn’t familiar with the film’s source material at the time, I had read enough of Murakami’s work to develop an affinity for his protagonists—cool, quick-witted loners who tend to prefer their own company. There’s an element of wish fulfillment here, especially since a standard Murakami plot centers on a romance with a mysterious and beautiful woman. At face value, Tony Takitani taps into the same heterosexual male fantasy. 

While neither cool nor quick-witted, Tony is definitely a loner. During the film’s 11-minute pre-title sequence, the viewer learns the root causes of his solitary ways. Three days after Tony was born, his mother died, and during much of his childhood, his trombonist father Shozaburo (Issey Ogata) was away from home touring with his jazz band. As a result, young Tony (Takahumi Shinohara) spent a lot of time by himself. Although Shozaburo felt that his son’s Western-sounding name would be an asset due to the heavy American influence in postwar Japan, the moniker “Tony” instead becomes a curse, alienating the boy from his peers, marking him as foreign and suspicious. Nevertheless, Tony claims to be unaffected: moments before the film’s title finally appears on screen, he insists, “I never thought I was especially lonely.” 

The introverted Tony grows into a talented artist, his passion for drawing seeming to mitigate any ill effects from his isolated childhood. Tony (also played by Issey Ogata, in a dual role as both father and son) takes art classes in college and becomes a successful professional illustrator. In a handful of silent scenes, the audience simply observes him working at his drawing table. Tony’s face betrays no emotion, totally absorbed in his art. He may not be smiling, but to my eyes, he looks happy. 

I never thought I was especially lonely either. Although I have three older siblings, there is a wide disparity in our ages; I was ostensibly raised as an only child. Growing up in rural Oklahoma, I found that my mixed background—half-Asian, half-white— marked me as different. Nevertheless, I had a good childhood: I loved drawing, filling up notebooks, sketchbooks, and poster boards full of comic book-inspired art. Eventually, I developed an enduring passion for writing. Although I don’t draw as often anymore, when I write, many hours can pass. It’s like I’m in my element. I’m in the zone. I’m happy.

My identification with Tony Takitani only grew in subsequent years, especially with regards to his relationship with Eiko (Rie Miyazawa), a client with whom he is instantly smitten. For the first time in his life, Tony actually considers marriage, going so far as to propose on the fifth date. However, Eiko is dating another man and needs time to consider his offer. While waiting for her response, Tony realizes that his life is actually missing something. “Loneliness is like a prison,” the unseen narrator (Hidetoshi Nishijima) declares. “That’s how Tony saw it.” 

Eventually, Eiko accepts Tony’s proposal, and the two of them live happily, though Tony quickly becomes overwhelmed with fear:

NARRATOR. The lonely times were over for Tony Takitani. As soon as he woke up, he sought her. When he saw her sleeping figure beside him, he relaxed and became anxious at her absence. This lack of loneliness felt ever so slightly odd to Tony. Because now that he wasn’t lonely, he found himself constantly terrified by the possibility of being alone again. Sometimes when he imagined it…

TONY. It scares me so much I break into a cold sweat.

A year or so after first watching Tony Takitani, I met my future wife. She and I were rarely apart, except during school holidays. Because we were both graduate students, we had summers and winters off, which often meant visiting our families separately for long stretches of time. I had grown accustomed to that arrangement in previous romantic relationships; the time and distance apart from them never really bothered me. With my wife, things were different. As someone who had always taken pride in my self-sufficiency, I suddenly felt lost without her. Before long, my thoughts were plagued with overwhelming fears that something terrible would happen, that I would somehow lose her forever. 

Though my feelings echoed Tony’s, my wife isn’t much like Eiko. Really, I could never relate to Eiko’s character. Although their marriage is initially a happy one, Tony soon discovers his wife’s secret vice:

NARRATOR. In the presence of clothes, she was almost entirely unable to restrain herself. In a flash, her expression altered, and even her voice changed. The problem escalated after they visited Europe. During their travels, she purchased an astonishing volume of designer clothing. As though bewitched, she simply bought every garment in sight, while Tony tagged along behind, picking up the tab.

Tony’s problem with Eiko’s spending habits has nothing to do with money, as he has plenty of it. It’s not an issue of space either; Tony has an entire room in their house converted into a giant walk-in closet. The actual, unstated issue at the heart of Tony’s concern is his wife’s mental well-being.

For the longest time, I didn’t understand Eiko at all, even upon repeated viewings. Why was she wasting so much money on clothes? What caused her obsession with designer brands? Why on earth was she buying all these outfits and shoes when she had more than she could possibly wear? Can’t she just stop? Every time I watched Tony Takitani, I would always see myself as Tony, the lonesome artist but never his troubled wife.

In April of 2023, Strand Releasing, the film’s original U.S. distributor, reissued the film—previously out-of-print—on DVD and streaming. Having already written about subsequent Murakami adaptations Burning and Drive My Car, I felt it was only natural to revisit the film and see if I had anything to say about it.  

Almost two decades removed from my first viewing, I feel like I finally understand Eiko—and perhaps I always should have. In the past, I viewed Eiko purely as a shopaholic, but now I see her behavior for what it is.

Eiko is a collector.

* * *

If you have read more than one Murakami novel, it might be tempting to view Tony and Eiko as mere stock characters in the author’s oeuvre. By that logic, Tony is yet another avatar for Murakami himself, and Eiko just one more beautiful, unknowable, and ultimately doomed woman. And yet, Murakami’s own hobbies imply that just as much of him exists in Eiko as in his protagonist. 

In his nonfiction book The T-Shirts I Love (2021), Murakami discusses his extensive and eclectic T-shirt collection, with one standing apart from the rest:

Of all my T-shirts, which one do I treasure most? That would have to be the Tony Takitani shirt. I ran across this T-shirt in a thrift shop in Maui and bought it for about a dollar. I asked myself, “What kind of person could Tony Takitani be?” and let my imagination take over, and I actually ended up writing a short story with him as the protagonist, which later was made into a film. And the T-shirt was just one dollar, if you can believe it! I’ve made a lot of investments in my life, but this was, hands down, the absolute best.

At the time, Murakami had no knowledge of the real Tony Takitani, a former member of the Hawaii House of Representatives, who created the T-shirt to promote his campaign for state Senate. Instead, he extrapolated an entire backstory based solely on a name that he felt would stand out as an oddity in Japan. 

I had been aware of this origin story since 2005, and yet somehow never put together that Murakami, an avid collector of both T-shirts and vinyl records (mainly jazz, like Tony’s father Shozaburo), shares the same type of shopping compulsions as Eiko. Of course, the publication of an entire book about Murakami’s massive T-shirt collection made this more apparent, but connecting Eiko to the author and thus back to myself didn’t fully happen until this past summer when I returned to Oklahoma.

My Singapore-born mother has lived in the Sooner State for over 40 years. Now, more than a decade after my father’s passing, she has decided to relocate to Hawaii to be closer to me. Earlier this year, with an estate sale and an auction looming, I felt a duty to return home and sort through my remaining belongings, all collecting dust in my childhood bedroom.

In some ways, collecting runs in my family—for Mom, it was dolls and purses; for Dad, it was tools and farming equipment. Nevertheless, my family had spent the last 12 years decluttering the house after my father’s death, so I figured my task wouldn’t be too difficult. It took the entire trip. 

After struggling to sort through my collection and taking an honest look at both my mother’s belongings and what still remained of my father’s, I came to a sobering conclusion: we’re not collectors; we’re hoarders

I’m Eiko. I’ve always been.

Both Eiko and I share a passion for possessing things. Her thing is designer clothing. Mine is action figures. In the past, I collected books, comic books, DVDs, and sports cards, but all those obsessions have either stopped or at least slowed down with the passage of time. The toys, however, just keep accumulating. 

Why do I feel this need to collect toys? Is it nostalgia for a time long since passed? Or am I suffering from an honest-to-goodness addiction? In the past, I just assumed I was making a long-term financial investment. More recently, I’ve excused it as a harmless form of retail therapy. 

Eiko may have asked herself similar questions. Before their marriage, she provides Tony with some insight into her shopping habits. In a montage of different, intercut conversations, Eiko refers to herself as self-centered and indulgent, even revealing—on their first date, no less—that she spends almost the entirety of her salary on clothes. Eiko goes on to confess, “I feel like clothes…that they…fill up what’s missing inside me.” Simply browsing a store isn’t enough for her. “When I see beautiful things,” she admits, “I can’t not buy them.” 

My situation has not quite reached the same level of concern as Eiko’s. Between the time of my college graduation and the beginning of my PhD program, I rarely even visited the toy aisle when I was out shopping. 

However, I have a distinct memory of wandering into a Toys “R” Us for the first time in years after a particularly soul-crushing graduate seminar at UC Santa Cruz. I walked out of the store with an Optimus Prime figure, and I remember sitting in my apartment absentmindedly transforming him from a robot to a truck and back again, wondering whether I was even cut out for grad school.

Since the pandemic, my purchases have only increased—I went from treating myself to the occasional toy at the local Target to immediately placing an order for a premium Japanese figure as soon as it’s listed online. Since moving to Hawaii six years ago, I’ve discovered that the lack of storage space is a serious issue. In fact, if I keep going on like this, I’ll probably need another room.

* * *

Ultimately, my trip home gave me a newfound appreciation for Tony Takitani. I came to realize that the film grapples not only with the inexplicable compulsion to collect things, but also with a difficult situation that most all of us will have to face, collector or not—that is, what do we do when the people we love, the ones who once imbued these material objects with meaning, are no longer with us? 

After resolving to curb her shopping habits, Eiko goes back to her favorite boutique to return an outfit. Upon dropping off the coat and dress, she initially feels unburdened. 

At the end of my summer trip, I sold thousands of dollars worth of toys from my mother’s home—almost the entirety of my Star Wars collection from the 1980s, precious plastic artifacts that I never thought I would let go. It felt oddly freeing in the moment, but a nagging doubt crept into my mind soon afterward. A similar feeling rushes over Eiko while stopping her car at a traffic light: 

NARRATOR. But as she waited for the light to change, she could think of nothing, but the coat and dress she had just returned. 

EIKO. Of their colors, their design, and their textures. 

When the light turns green, a distracted Eiko steps on the accelerator and makes a sharp left turn. We see nothing but the hood of her car and then a black screen, the sound of screeching tires emanating from the soundtrack. Although the film offers no further explanation, in the original short story, a large truck speeds through the intersection and slams into Eiko’s car, killing her instantly.

After the funeral, Tony is left alone with nothing but Eiko’s ashes and a roomful of designer clothes. Attempting to adjust to this strange new existence, he enacts an even stranger coping mechanism: Tony places an ad searching for an assistant, one who is female and has the same exact measurements as his wife. A young woman named Hisako Saito (also played by Rie Miyazawa) answers the call for this high-paying job and learns that Tony wants her to wear his wife’s clothes as a kind of uniform—a different outfit from her wardrobe every day she comes to work. After inspecting Eiko’s vast collection, Hisako accepts the job and takes some of the clothes home with her. The scene shifts to Tony sitting on his knees in Eiko’s fully stocked closet:

NARRATOR. Her clothes seemed like his wife’s lingering shadows. These shadows, once infused with warm breath, had moved alongside his wife. Yet, what now confronted him, their vital roots severed, seemed a flock of shadows, withering with each moment. As Tony… 

TONY. …watched this happen, I gradually began to suffocate.

In Eiko’s absence, the clothes serve as tangible ghosts that haunt Tony, constantly reminding him of the person who will no longer inhabit them. As a result, he has second thoughts about the job offer and calls Hisako to tell her to keep his wife’s clothes and to forget the whole thing happened. Unable to bear the sight of Eiko’s wardrobe any longer, Tony eventually contacts a secondhand clothing shop to take everything away. In the end, his wife’s lingering shadows have been vanquished from the room, but the question remains: at what cost?

The situation soon repeats itself. Two years after Eiko’s passing, Shozaburo Takitani dies of liver cancer, and Tony inherits his dad’s old jazz albums and trombone, which he stores in Eiko’s now emptied-out closet. After another year, Tony finds the moldy vinyl records burdensome, so he contacts a vintage record shop for an appraisal. Although his father’s collection of rarities fetches a hefty sum, Tony doesn’t seem to feel good about it. Once again, he’s removed one problem only to face another one. The narrator states, “Once the mountain of records vanished, Tony Takitani was truly and finally, completely alone.”

In both of these instances, Tony disposes of a loved one’s prized collection in an attempt to free himself of the burden he perceives. However, there is one thing that stood out to me during this rewatch that I never noticed before: the scene with the jazz albums inside the closet is intercut with an outdoor scene of Tony burning his sketchbooks. Since they belong to him and not Eiko or Shozaburo, it’s unclear why he feels the need to destroy them. They do not contain images of his wife or his father, as Tony specialized in drawing inanimate objects. The voiceover narration, which normally provides further insight into the characters and their thoughts, does not offer any commentary on the images in the sketchbook or Tony’s actions. And of course, Tony says nothing. 

I’m not sure what to make of Tony’s behavior, but these fleeting moments resonate with me. When I was in Oklahoma, I sorted through maybe a hundred of my past drawings, dating all the way back to kindergarten. These weren’t just doodles or sketches, but fully-realized panels for comic books, even T-shirt designs for my high school. I couldn’t keep all of them, so a great many of these drawings ended up in the trash. Although I was unsentimental about their disposal, I did feel like I was erasing the remaining visible evidence of both a past love and a past life. It felt wrong somehow.

Perhaps that’s how Tony felt. Towards the end of the film, he returns to the empty storage room. The image dissolves into a different shot of Tony, now on the floor and lying on his side, his head pointed towards the right side of the frame. The mise-en-scène mimics an earlier shot involving Tony’s father. 

Strand Releasing

During the section of the pre-title sequence, set in Shanghai during World War II, the Chinese Army arrests Shozaburo and tosses him in a cell with dimensions that eerily resemble Eiko’s walk-in closet. Tony’s placement on the floor in the present mirrors his father’s in the past. To underline this point, Ichikawa cuts from the shot of Tony back to the earlier one of Shozaburo, a visual echo of the narrator’s previous statement during Tony’s courtship of Eiko: “Loneliness is like a prison.”

Ghosts, like certain lingering, painful memories, seem to haunt us for an unbearable duration—and usually at the most unexpected, inopportune times. But as the film explores, what happens when we finally exorcise those spirits for good? Will we feel better or somehow worse? After all, the removal of Eiko’s clothes and Shozaburo’s records does not seem to provide Tony with any measure of comfort or closure.

* * *

As my mother’s moving date fast approaches, it’s been one emotional gut-punch after the other. In the last few weeks, I’ve gone to the auctioneer’s website and scrolled through numerous photos of my father’s equipment and tools. I’ve visited the Facebook page of the estate sale and seen hundreds of my mom’s items being sold off for pennies on the dollar. I’ve stared at the haunting photos that my mom texted me of my empty childhood home, gutted of furniture, personality, life.

On an intellectual level, I know that all of these things are positive steps in the right direction, but somehow, I still feel unbearably sad. It’s hard to grasp that I won’t be able to use my father’s tools or drive his tractor again. Or that I’ll never share a meal with my family on that old familiar kitchen table in the picture; for all I know, it’s sitting in someone else’s house right now. Only recently have I truly come to grips with the reality that my childhood home—my refuge from the challenges of the world, my anchor to my parents and my identity, my one constant in an uncertain universe—will someday belong to another family.

What is a collection, anyway? Is it not an array of memories and experiences in tangible form? Why not build a collection that takes a finite, intangible thing and makes it everlasting? I don’t know if I have the answers to those questions just yet. However, I do sense that the opening shot of Tony Takitani offers a possible rejoinder to the logic behind them—at the very least, it can provide some much-needed food for thought. 

The film begins with a few sparse production credits on a black screen before transitioning via fade-in to a bed of dark sand. The camera pans across these coarse grains, eventually landing on the hands of a young Tony Takitani. It’s unclear if he is on a beach, in a sandbox, or merely on the side of the road. Wherever he is, Tony is completely absorbed in his work. We watch as the boy meticulously shapes the sand into an impressive sculpture of a ship, complete with funnels and two masts. The very thing that Tony is building—essentially a sand castle—is nothing more than a monument to impermanence. Yes, it is a marvel to behold. But, like dust in the wind, it won’t last. 

From beginning to end, Tony Takitani contemplates the inevitable conclusion for all the collections we attempt to build for ourselves—whether designer clothing, action figures, or something else entirely. When we die, our collections might get passed on to our loved ones, but in truth, most everything we once owned will be sold off, donated, or trashed. No matter what beautiful sculptures we create on the beach of life, in the end, they will all be washed away by time.