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Haruki Murakami on film: The three live adaptation titles released in Japan so far

The visual interpretations of Murakami's dark, complicated, captivating world

Every fall, as the announcement of the Nobel Prize of Literature approaches, a distinct group of people gathers at a bar in Tokyo clutching books and framed photos, praying that, at last, their long-awaited wish will come true. The “Harukists,” as they are commonly known as, are novelist Haruki Murakami’s most devoted fans, the people who have continued to advocate for the author’s global fame and literary stardom. They also represent the tens of thousands of worldwide fans who, most likely for practical reasons, could not be hanging out at the Tokyo bar. But why are there Harukists across the world and what is Murakami’s secret that captivates them? What has contributed to turning this Japan-born writer into one of the most famous novelists of our generation? Is it because he has penned some of the most moving, heartbreaking, human, and genre-bending stories of our time, or is there more to his story?

Born in Japan’s ancient capital of Kyoto in 1949, Haruki Murakami grew up in Kobe before moving to Tokyo to attend a prestigious university, and later opening a cozy jazz bar. At 29, he wrote his first piece of fiction, “Hear the Wind Sing” (1979), after being inspired by a baseball game. Since then, he’s had best-sellers across the globe — including “1Q84,” “Kafka on the Shore,” “After the Quake,” “Dance Dance Dance,” and of course, “Norwegian Wood.” His works, often described as dark, parallel-realistic, and, oftentimes, “westernized,” have been translated into over 50 languages.

As a screenwriter or film director, turning a Haruki Murakami tale into something for the silver screen would be both a career-defining and daunting task. Murakami is hard to define, difficult to grasp, and impossible to present for one cultural audience, given his global fanbase. But the very few film adaptations of his works have so far succeeded at large. Here are three of his best works ever made into a film, along with hints of what makes Murakami’s works worth reading — or, in this case — watching.

1. Tony Takitani (トニー滝谷), 2005

Tony Takitani is a short story inspired by a t-shirt which Murakami spotted at a garage sale in Maui: it read: “Tony Takitani, House (D).” Murakami got intrigued by the name on the t-shirt, wondering about the person who could carry such a name. This curiosity served as an inspiration for his book — released in 2002, traces the tale of Mr. Takitani, a passionate young illustrator raised by a single father jazz musician.

After being treated differently for his “Americanised” name, Tony opts to spend more time in solitude, working hard and amassing a humble fortune before meeting a client, Eiko, and getting married. The couple is happy. However, Eiko’s passion for shopping goes from being a hobby to a serious problem. On the way to her local boutique to return a coat and dress, Eiko is killed in a traffic accident, leaving a distraught Tony to go on alone.

While it may not be that widely known in international circles, the film, directed by the late Jun Ichikawa, was described by the New York Times as a “delicate wisp of a film with a surprisingly sharp sting.” It’s contemplative, human, and touching all the hallmarks of a great Murakami tale. The soundtrack was crafted by one of Japan’s most iconic composers, Ryuichi Sakamoto.

Cast: Issey Ogata, Rie Miyazawa
Director: Jun Ichikawa

2. Norwegian Wood (ノルウェイの森), 2010

Released in 1987, “Norwegian Wood” is arguably Murakami’s most famous and widely read work. It’s named after the Beatles’ song, a song that brings the story’s 37-year old protagonist, Toru Watanabe, an overwhelming feeling of nostalgia. The novel is a somber tale of two leading figures, Toru and Naoko, who met when they were teenagers — Naoko, being the girlfriend of Toru’s teenage best friend Kizuki, who commits suicide at 17 years old. The story follows the pair and the connection they form in the years following Kizuki’s passing. Between the two, there’s a little romance, a little mutual dependence, and plenty of longing throughout the story, making it no surprise that it’s a must-read literary-inclined for any moody teenager.

Directed by Vietnamese-born Paris resident, Tran Anh Hung, the film adaptation of the book was first released in 2010. For a while, Tran Anh Hung — a director famous for his Vietnamese films, “The Scent of Green Papaya,” and “The Vertical Ray of the Sun” — spoke about his passion for tuning “Norwegian Wood” into a screenplay. At first, Murakami was reticent — as you might have guessed by now, he’s not a big fan of adapting his books into films.

After the pair met in Tokyo, Tran Anh Hung wrote the screenplay in French, then translated it into English to discuss with Murakami before shooting it all in Japanese. While the story title is a reference to a single by the greatest bands of the previous generation, this film’s soundtrack was created by Jonny Greenwood, the lead guitarist and keyboard player for Radiohead, one of the greatest rock bands of the modern era.

Cast: Kenichi Matsuyama, Rinko Kikuchi, Kiko Mizuhara
Director: Tran Anh Hung

3. Hanalei Bay (ハナレイ・ベイ), 2018

Named after Hawaii’s popular Kauaʻi island bay, this 2018 film is another one of Murakami’s short story adaptations. This story follows Sachi, the owner of a piano bar and a single mother. One day while surfing, Sachi’s son, adolescent Takashi, is attacked and killed by a shark attack lurking in the waters of the pristine Hanalei Bay. On the 10th anniversary of her son’s death, she makes a visit to the bay to pay her respects. At the beach, she meets two young surfers who tell her about a younger surfer with one leg, who goes by the name Takashi.

Aside from “Hanalei Bay'”s captivating story, cinematography, and the stunning ocean scenes, the casting is also a major reason to watch the film. Starring veteran actress Yoh Yoshida in the leading role as Takashi’s mother, the film, directed by Daishi Matsunaga, would be considered an indie-level flick, it does also features a few other notable names. Reo Sano of Japanese pop Generations from Exile Tribe — who has been gaining some attention for his acting chops of late — plays the role of Takashi, while “Terrace House” fans might recognize Aloha State’s resident surf legend Gai Sato who plays the role of Miyake, Takashi’s friend.

Cast: Yoh Yoshida, Reo Sano, Nijiro Murakami
Director: Daishi Matsunaga

Heartbreak, death, disjointed families, Murakami rarely pens feel-good stories — as the films above attest. But what he does write is incredibly real and unquestionably moving explorations on just what it means to be human. His work is elegantly understated but incredibly poetic. No matter your language, there’s inherent magic to Murakami’s work, one that crosses nationalities and unites each and every one of those who consume his work — in a verbal or visual form.

Text by Lucy Dayman