You don’t have to know an ounce about bestselling author Haruki Murakami to enjoy the new animated film Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, which adapts his work.
Murakami is known for being prolific, both in publishing output and raw page count for each book. His writing is dense with references to mid-20th-century pop culture, Japanese history, jazz, The Beatles minutiae, and the male sexual id, which is to say he’s both immediately entertaining and just as immediately off-putting. FIlmed adaptations of his writing, on the other hand, are often more contained and accessible — they’re ultimately stand-alone works from individual creators.
Those who stream Blind Willow on a whim will get another solid example of Western adult animation, the kind that until recently couldn’t consistently find investment, even from indie studios. Blind Willow sits alongside films like Flee, Tower, and Anomalisa, though it has most in common with the last film, with its heady conversations about the banality of adult life, some nudity, and a splash or two of freakish gore.
But if you do know Murakami, Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman is much more, akin to a once-in-a-generation mashup event. This isn’t a Murakami movie; it’s the Murakami movie.
When Murakami published the anthology Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman in 2006, he wrote in the introduction that it was his “first real short-story collection.” That was a funny thing to say. Murakami had been publishing for two decades, including 2002’s critically adored short-story set After the Quake. But to him Quake was “more like a concept album.” Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, by comparison, captured the breadth and depth of his craft, stretching across 24 stories written over as many years. They had little connective tissue or even curation, beyond coming from one man. It was literature as a grab bag.
Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, the 2023 film of the same name, puzzlingly isn’t an adaptation of the short-story collection. Instead, French composer and director Pierre Földes uses it to restate its namesake’s purpose: to assemble a tasting menu of Murakami’s work for a new generation. Where the short-story collection introduced readers to the author’s ever-growing literary catalog, the film is a comparable starting point for the queue of Murakami film adaptations spread across your favorite streaming services.
Even though the film takes the name of the story collection, it mostly borrows from other Murakami works. The two men at the film’s center come from two separate stories in After the Quake: “UFO in Kushiro” and “Super-Frog Saves Tokyo.” In the former, 30-something salesman Komura volunteers to deliver a mysterious package after his wife disappears. In the latter, Katagiri, a meek middle-aged office worker, is tasked by a human-sized frog to save Tokyo from an earthquake by fighting a giant worm. (This premise will sound familiar to fans of Japanese storytelling or anyone who’s seen the recently released Makoto Shinkai film Suzume.)
Földes peppers the parallel journeys with stories from Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman — like when a conversation evolves into a summary of that collection’s titular short. But more surprisingly, Foldes goes much further into Murakami’s bibliography, merging shorts, novels, and everything in between.
This great mashing-together of prose can be specific and literal — for instance, when Komura, searching for his lost cat, stumbles into the world of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and then stays for a great while. Földes — who wrote and directed the film, along with contributing in art direction, the sound department, the score, and voicing the Frog — allows his characters to drift from one tale to the other and back. The effect is like having Murakami’s stories summarized by someone who consumed all of them decades ago, and now can’t quite remember what differentiated one story from another.
When this method works, which it often does, Földes helps the audience see how Murakami’s habits complement each other, how their narrative rhythms echo across decades of writing. In the Murakami universe, depressed and anxious people chill out only at the darkest point of night, when everyone else is asleep and time seems to stop. And they always have a crisp, icy beer to nurse.
Földes also tunes into Murakami’s love of liminal spaces. In the film, transparent ghosts go about their lives. Maybe they’re dead from a recent natural disaster, unaware of their fate, unconsciously repeating their days ad nauseam. Or maybe they’re the living, doing the exact same thing. Maybe there’s no difference. And just like a good Murakami story, Földes punctuates this existential anxiety with speckles of the beautiful and profound, like two unlikely friends lounging in an abandoned lot, listening to classical music on the radio as thunderstorms roll in.
Sometimes, however, the stories don’t come together. Or perhaps they come together too well. In these moments, the film feels like a parody of Murakami, packed with missing cats, talking animals, a fixation with that point where the mundane and the surreal meet, and a bizarre ability for loser men to give off some magnetic sexual charge for beautiful, younger women.
We get lines like two co-workers chatting at a bar: “Do you fuck her? [...] Once in a while a wife needs a good fuck.” We see flashes of sexual fantasy devolve in an instant to sexual violence. Murakami’s willingness to crash eroticism into unfettered male sexual frustration positioned him as a bold literary voice. But these habits have felt increasingly like a crutch in his books. Someone who’s never encountered that tendency by reading him may find the idea’s expression here fresher than longtime readers weighed down with the baggage of his repetition.
The final result is watching one talented artist try to capture another one’s soul, like trying to catch a swarm of gnats with a net. Some get caught. Just as many flitter through the holes.
Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman marks the fourth Murakami movie adaptation in five years. Two of those films — Burning and Drive My Car — will be remembered as some of the best films of the decade. They use the author’s text as a launching pad and reach for something as good, if not greater, than their source material.
But Földes instead feels like he’s aiming to go nowhere in particular. He relishes Murakami’s work, and hopes you will too. We hear a lot of critical discourse these days about “movies made for fans.” But here is a movie made by a fan, an artist given the freedom to explore and mend and even lightly critique a collection of writing that seems to haunt him like all those ghosts walking the streets — not a threat, but never going away. It’s a bleakly beautiful (or beautifully bleak) world Földes has created, from his writing and direction to his character design and score. This is the work of an artist obsessed.
Like the men at the center of its story, the movie can’t help but ask: Why look for a new home when you like the one you have?
Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman makes its American debut at New York’s Film Forum on April 14.