I read Haruki Murakmai’s short story “Tony Takitani” in his collection of short stories Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman when I was in college.
A couple years after I graduated college, I stopped reading Murakami’s works altogether because I found his depiction of women too painful. I could say “problematic” here but I’ll just go with my feeling rather than social commentary. It’s really a personal decision. I’m still not fond of any literary, filmic, or televisual works that use women’s bodies and psyche as playgrounds for male fantasies.
In my in-between stage between college and “the world,” I was living in Seoul. A childhood friend of mine asked me out to a movie at an art house cinema located in a basement somewhere. I remember seeing the poster for the film The Vegetarian, which is a film based on the book that won the Man Booker Prize for Han Kang a few years ago. The film was out way before Han Kang gained international recognition for her book.
There was just one film playing at this art house cinema, and it was Tony Takitani—Jun Ichikawa’s adaptation of Murakami’s short story.
Ichikawa had just passed away a year prior to when I saw this film at this theater. The theater didn’t have theater seating. They were just a couple of chairs. My friend and I were the only audience members. The film played on a projection screen. The theater wasn’t even really a theater. It was more of a small art gallery space. The room we were in was about the size of a small studio apartment.
I recall liking the film very much. I found the aesthetics of the film very pleasing. I liked the soundtrack, too, which was by Ryuichi Sakamoto. The choices that Ichikawa made for the film like letting the voiceover narration transmute into the actor’s line-delivery to blur diagetic and non-diegetic narration, and the staging for each shot were so lovely. They stimulated artistic pleasure for me. The friend I went to see this film with—also an artist, and now a creative director at a luxury sunglasses company—also commented on these stylistic and directional choices.
As soon as the film ended, another film began to play. It was a documentary on the making of Tony Takitani. I learned that all of the sets were created in an isolated urban space outdoors so that Ichikawa could make use of the city lights glimmering or blinking in the backdrop. This adds a great deal of mood to each scene in the film, and a sophisticated aesthetic to the picture that matches the high-end luxury clothes that Eiko was obsessed with.
Tony Takitani is about a man born to a jazz musician—trombone player—who was nearly killed as a POW during WWII. Tony was named after an American soldier that his father had met. Tony’s mother died 3 days after his birth. Tony became an illustrator, but his works were often critiqued for lacking a human touch or warmth. Tony is a loner. He is used to being alone all the time. He is so alone that he doesn’t even register his own loneliness. He meets a younger woman named Eiko, falls in love, and proposes. She rejects him initially but he explains how he feels—that he might not be able to live with his loneliness without her. She marries him, and their married life is blissful, but Tony eventually takes note of Eiko’s shopping addiction. She cannot stop. Eiko one day dies in a car accident. Tony is back to being alone again. He cannot withstand the isolation so he hires a woman who has the exact measurements as his late wife, and asks her to wear his wife’s clothes whenever she comes to do housework as a uniform.
There’s a scene in the film when this hired woman goes into the room where all of Eiko’s clothes are. She looks at them and breaks down into tears saying she’s never seen so many beautiful clothes all at once.
This scene reminds me of the scene in The Great Gatsby—both the Jack Clayton version and Baz Luhrmann version, and of course, the line in the original book by F. Scott Fitzgerald when Jay starts throwing his shirts into the air overwhelming Daisy who starts crying, saying she’s never seen such beautiful shirts before.
This made me wonder—what is it with men imagining women crying at the sight of clothes? Is it like men celebrating themselves when a woman cries during sex thinking that she came, and crediting himself?
I’ll say that both filmic interpretations of The Great Gatsby and Tony Takitani were all directed by men. Both the novel and the short story were written by men.
Do men think women cry when they shop? Do men think that women are crazed by clothing? Do men really think that women fill their “emptiness” with clothes and accessories?
In Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas, she calls out the patriarch’s hypocrisy when they criticize women for being materially occupied. Woolf points to parishioners and priests–men–who wear ornate garments in the church—gown, hat and all—to impress who? god? Is god a materially-occupied being? According to that logic, god really is a woman….
In the modern era, women’s material occupation was shaped and constructed especially after WWII in America and moralized. The woman’s place was the home—back in the domestic sphere. Forget about the fact that she worked while the men were gone. She ought to do nothing but sit at home and purchase what radio, television and magazines tell her to purchase, and she ought to be the most right and responsible household manager, and the only way to do that is to buy the best stuff on the market for if she did not, she would be letting down her entire family, and there is no greater shame than that.
And who were the people in charge of these material goods at ad agencies and corporations? We’ve all seen the show Mad Men, so we know who they were.
But I think Tony Takitani and The Great Gatsby also point to the male protagonists’ sense of emptiness without a female presence in their lives, too. So for these men, they need to fill their emptiness with another person—a person who is not right for them or good for them. They feel that they can do this because the woman they admire is beautiful, and knows how to doll herself up through beautiful materials such as clothes, accessories, shoes, etc.
So these works are pointing to the cycle of material despair, and how none of us can fill this void with any noun—a person or thing.
I was thinking about Jay Gatsby, and wondering why the title of that book calls him “great.”
Jay Gatsby is far from “great,” really. He’s a liar and a crook, but most of all, a stalker. Wait, what? He saved clippings of Daisy for 5 years? He kept throwing huge lavish parties hoping she’d show up? He told people that he went to Oxford and inherited his wealth from his family before they died when those things aren’t exactly true? He says he’s a business man when he’s actually running business from the underground?
I just feel like the word “great” here is used in a confused way. Jay Gatsby isn’t that different from the characters that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s book appears to be critiquing (at least in high school standards); if people like Daisy, Tom, George, and Myrtle appear immoral because of their life choices, Gatsby is just as easy to judge. But Nick regards all of them as victims of desire, then the playing field is level. They are all lost souls trapped in longing and wanting. “Desire leads to suffering.”
I question Nick’s character, too, because he sees only Gatsby as the victim in all of this. Gatsby was a nut. He was out of his wack and obsessed with a married woman. There’s nothing great about him. Fitzgerald was right to punish him. I question Fitzgerald in letting Tom and Daisy off scott-free though. Perhaps this where the expression “scott-free” comes from. From F. Scott Fitzgerald’s questionable plot choices where the poor and destitute are punished for being poor and destitute, and the lives of the rich remain uninterrupted no matter what immoral act they commit.
i attended an academic conference virtually to present a paper on The Wailing by Na Hong-jin and how the film is an extension of anthropologist Heonik Kwon’s concept of “decomposition” in reconsidering the “ends” of the “cold war” through the metaphor of zombies, and processing national traumas around massacres and mass rape during the Korean War
when the floor was opened up for questions, initially, nobody had anything to ask me. this is often the case whenever i present at any non-Korean studies related academic conferences where the majority of attendees are white academics discussing Western-centric texts. when there are no questions, i usually wonder if anyone was even listening–if they regard my work as completely irrelevant to their work and therefore is not worth listening to.
as if my work is not related to American empire—a concept that is familiar to all, and affects us all, and is highly present in my work, and yet no one seems to recognize it as a real thing.
after presenting, when someone finally did ask a question, it came from a white male scholar who was hosting the panel, and he asked me if i’d seen the film Seoul Station.
i laughed internally because so many white male cinephiles ask me if i’d seen Seoul Station as some kind of test, like, “did you see this obscure animated film because i sure did and let me tell you something you don’t know!”
he wasn’t really asking a question but rather telling me that he’d seen that Korean film and if what he’d seen has anything to do with my work. how is that a question? what have i been arguing this whole time? what was my paper about? does he even know?
Seoul Station is not made by the same filmmaker I am dealing with. the way that Yeon Sang-ho handles zombies as a metaphor to critique capitalist urbanism is completely different from how Na Hong-jin utilizes zombies to convey the chaotic confusion and disturbance of post-Korean war trauma.
then another male scholar tells me that he’s seen Kingdom and asks me if the “Korean zombie” is one that always hates the Japanese.
again, a completely different text—in fact, not even a film because it’s a serialized show on Netflix—and written by TV screenwriter Kim Eun-hee. Kingdom is not even set during the same era as The Wailing. it’s set in pre-modern Korea whereas my text is about modern Korea.
this person was asking me about Kingdom, again, to convey that he’d seen some Korean thing related to zombies, and wanting me to connect the dots for him when in fact there are no dots to connect.
the notion of “Korean zombie” is not even real. how each auteur utilizes the zombie in their text for a specific purpose varies greatly per text but these guys were just conflating all Korean media as one thing and streamlining them into the “Zombie” category as if a single national identification exists.
in Kingdom, the zombie is used to critique government neglect of the welfare of citizens, and classism issues. Seoul Station is a critique of capitalist ideology and its entwinement with local patriarchy and urbanization. The Wailing, as I said, is about necropolitics and decomposition.
each text varies greatly in their use and expression of the zombie. but these people wanted me to give them an easy explanation of “the Korean zombie” as if it’s a thing, and wanted only to tell me what they’d seen that happened to be Korean and happened to be about zombies.
none of their questions had anything to do with my paper or my argument. so what was the point of me sharing 20 minutes of this conference presentation? what was the point of me working on slides and condensing my paper down to a powerpoint presentation when nobody was going to give two shits but only talk about themselves and their knowledge?
these conference organizers always talk about diversifying their presentations and being more inclusive as an afterthought, but they have no tools or any clue as to how to be diverse and inclusive. the way to do it is to actually LISTEN. to actually HEAR what the argument is, and come up with a question or a comment that benefits the presenter when they go back to revise their paper based on NOTES given at the conference.
this is something i always set out to do when i attend panels, conferences and workshops, but the evident lack of interest and attention to my work makes me really question my belonging to these kinds of spaces. that is microaggression. dismissal of a paper before they even hear it out because it’s related to a non-Western country is xenophobic and racist.
so for those of you attending a conference next time, pay attention to the works that discuss issues of the “global south” and empire. pay attention to what’s being discussed on colonization, war trauma, and massacres. really listen to the argument that is being made, and ask questions that relate to that person’s paper and might help them expand on their thoughts rather than stifle their ideas because now they’re clouded by cynicism and pessimism based on the rather aggressive whiteness and maleness of such a space.