Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman is a captivating journey through Tokyo, set a few days after the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake
For all their literary charms, the writings of renowned author Haruki Murakami haven’t always felt conducive to the world of moving image. Full of introspective monologues, observational musings, and narratives that veer from quotidian ho-hum to dreamlike fantasy, books like Norwegian Wood, Kafka on the Shore and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle are not necessarily cinematic goldmines. But as recent sensations from Lee Chang-dong (Burning) and Ryusuke Hamaguchi (Drive My Car) prove there’s a place for Murakami-an fiction in live-action arthouse cinema, a new project from French-English director Pierre Földes now demonstrates the author’s potential for a different kind of filmmaking altogether.
Földes’ debut feature Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman – released in cinemas in the UK and Ireland at the end of last month – presents a series of interweaving Murakami short stories as an innovative animated film. It‘s a surreal journey through Tokyo that takes place a few days after the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, following the benign interactions and anxieties of a series of everyday characters. They navigate strange dreams, secret vows and romantic separations, as man-sized amphibians, colossal earthworms and endlessly winding corridors get in their way. The result isn’t just an effective recreation of the author’s unique style, it’s also the most visually remarkable adaption of his work to date.
Speaking to Dazed over a pot of tea at The Standard, King’s Cross, Földes (who is a painter and composer, as well as a filmmaker) highlights how love, labour and “live animation” were all key to the success of his vibrant and ambitious film. “Choose any short story you like,” Murakami had said when Földes approached him; “I’d like to choose a few, actually,” was the director’s response.
Inspired by the storytelling in Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee & Cigarettes – in which 11 interlinking vignettes are connected through the objects of the film’s title – a voracious Földes read back through an arsenal of Murakami short stories after receiving carte blanche to adapt them as he wished. Naturally attracted to the “unknown and mysterious”, Földes forged links between the tales found in collections like The Elephant Vanishes (the first Murakami work he read, some 15 years ago), After the Quake and, indeed, Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman – and his own piecemeal storytelling project began to emerge. “It’s like vegetation growing,” says Földes. “You find yourself in a forest that has changed its roads and paths, but it just makes sense.”
With such contemplative and dialogue-heavy source material providing the film’s bedrock, it would be the visuals through which Földes could most strongly manifest his creativity. Unsurprisingly, given his artistic background, this would end up being an area where the film truly thrives. “I love talking about anything internal and expressing it into images,” he says. “That’s what filmmaking is. But the fact that it’s animation, in a sense, makes it easier – because in animation you start with nothing. You define every single element that’s in the picture. Every image is composed.”
The images seen in Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman are frequently captivating. Intricate, illustrated backgrounds are drawn with incredible detail, making suburban neighbourhoods, cramped apartments and hospital waiting rooms pop out of the screen. Pastel-like hues and hints of watercolour bring even the most mundane scenes to life, while secondary characters and objects are often shaded semi-transparent, augmenting the stories’ dreamlike quality. The primary characters, on the other hand, are meticulously animated in a style not dissimilar to the rotoscoping seen in Richard Linklater’s druggy sci-fi cult classic A Scanner Darkly, making their every expression feel compelling and lifelike.
“I kind of invented a new style of animation,” Földes explains. “I call it ‘live animation’”. The process involves filming real actors, and then transposing movements and subtle expressions from the video footage onto the sculpted 3D heads of the soon-to-be animated characters. It allows you to create a rich personality while also mimicking reality. Nonetheless, with 1,400 individual shots in the film (each adapted from storyboards individually drawn by Földes), progress proved unforgiving. “Moving heads while a character is talking and moving his eyebrows are very challenging. I could maybe do about two seconds [of footage] a day with the tools I had.”
‘[The surreality] wasn’t even conscious... It was just instinctive. And I trust my instinct a lot more than my intelligence’ – Pierre Földes
There were other innovations, as well. One vivid sequence in which an introverted old salaryman with a tendency for hallucinations is stalked through the neon-lit streets of Shinjuku was shot in 2.5D – a manifestation of the director’s passion for camera mapping techniques. This brief spectacle is accentuated even further by an eclectic musical moment – inspired, says the director, both by Japanese noir films from the 70s and early Akira Kurosawa movies. It makes for an acutely surreal moment in a narrative strand already spiked with visions of talking frogs, premonitions of calamity and Godzilla levels of destruction.
And Földes is glad that surreality translates; it’s something inherent in both his own artistic work and that of Murakami. “It wasn’t even conscious,” he says. “It was just instinctive. And I trust my instinct a lot more than my intelligence.”
The film’s aims, ultimately, were more modest than the painstaking work of its creators might suggest. And as Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman is prepared for a wide release in the UK after travelling the world for numerous film festival screenings (it notably won a Jury Distinction at Annecy International Animation Film Festival in 2022), the director feels that a goal has already been achieved. “I was inspired by something, and I made a film to spread that inspiration,” he says. “It’s amazing to see that young people really get it — and that makes me very happy.”