By Thomas M. Puhr.
Based on six Haruki Murakami short stories, writer-director Pierre Földes’ feature debut is an invigorating curiosity, a much-needed reminder of the emotional depths to which animation can take us.”
“What you see with your eyes is not necessarily real,” a character reflects in Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman (2022). “My enemy is, among other things, the me inside me.” It’s a fitting mission statement for a film wherein people struggle to differentiate reality from dreams. Also fitting is how these words of wisdom are delivered by a human-sized, anthropomorphized frog who may or may not be real and enjoys quoting Nietzsche.
Based on six Haruki Murakami short stories, writer-director Pierre Földes’ feature debut is an invigorating curiosity, a much-needed reminder of the emotional depths to which animation can take us. It takes place in Tokyo, shortly after 2011’s devastating tsunami and nuclear disaster at Fukushima, and follows three characters: meek bank worker Katagiri (Arnaud Maillard), who is recruited by “Mr. Frog” (Földes) to help save Tokyo from a catastrophic disaster; Katagiri’s rudderless coworker, Komura (Amaury de Crayencour), who faces an impasse when his wife leaves him; and Kyoko (Mathilde Auneveux), said spouse, who finds herself unable to recover from the apocalyptic updates saturating the news.
Various subplots – some more memorable than others – revolve around these protagonists, all of whom the team of animators and a uniformly brilliant voice cast bring to life. Notwithstanding a few abstract sequences, the animation leans toward the realistic. Its clean lines (the Tokyo cityscape in particular is jaw-droppingly meticulous) and even coloring bring The Summit of the Gods (2021)– another French production of Japanese source material, oddly enough – to mind. On the other hand, surreal touches emphasize the characters’ feelings of disconnection. For example, Földes will often render nearby people, buildings, and objects semi-transparent, ghost-like. This tonal juxtaposition makes for some disarming humor; when Katagiri first discovers Frog in his apartment, he doesn’t panic and run amok but takes a seat and politely asks his unexpected guest if it’s okay that he has a smoke while they talk.
Such philosophical issues – explored in bars, bedrooms, bus stops, and backyards – seem to be what really interest Földes, more so than any of the narrative’s magical elements.”
More affecting than these overtly fantastical elements, however, are the metaphysical puzzles Murakami’s characters struggle to understand. Two of the film’s best scenes would feel right at home in another Murakami adaptation, Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car (2021). The first concerns Kyoko telling an old friend about a strange encounter from her youth, when the hermit-like owner of a restaurant where she waitressed offered to grant her a single wish. The second follows Komura to Hokkaido, after a coworker recruits him to deliver a mysterious package to his sister, Keiko (Isabelle Vitari).
Was the old restaurant owner truly gifted with some power, or was he delusional (or worse, preying on an unhappy young woman)? What’s in the little black box entrusted to Komura, and why is Keiko’s friend, Shimao (Géraldine Schitter), so curious about his marital issues? And what exactly does Kyoko mean when she tells her husband that “living with you is like living with a chunk of air”? Komura surmises that it has something to do with how empty he is inside, though he doesn’t know what that missing “something” is, or could be. Is this something else – a soul, perhaps – actually inside us, or is it an illusion?
Such philosophical issues – explored in bars, bedrooms, bus stops, and backyards – seem to be what really interest Földes, more so than any of the narrative’s magical elements; he understands that intellectually exploring such questions is deeply rewarding in and of itself. What gives his film a particularly melancholy tone is the uncertainty – the potential emptiness – lurking in the periphery. Its inhabitants float (sometimes literally, which had me thinking of 2001’s Waking Life) through their little trials and tribulations, all of which are dwarfed by the horrors at Fukushima.
One story thread playfully incorporates this existential uncertainty in the form of Komura’s missing cat, Watanabe. Like the cat of Schrödinger’s famous thought experiment, Watanabe exists in an ambiguous space between life and death (to make sure we get the allusion, Földes shows the pet in a box at least twice). Just as Schrödinger’s cat is sort of dead, sort of alive, sort of both, and sort of neither, Murakami’s characters cannot be boiled down to simple binaries. Kyoko could have been written as the prototypical backstabbing wife; however, her characterization is far more nuanced, as the subplot about her mysterious wish so powerfully illustrates. By the same token, the seemingly spineless Katagiri discovers untapped reserves of courage when faced with Frog’s daunting mission.
A lack of simple answers begs complex questions. I keep returning to this one: If the courage inside Katagiri is real, then does it matter whether or not Frog is? Yes, the “me inside me” can be an enemy. But it can also be a friend.
Thomas Puhr lives in Chicago, where he teaches English and language arts. A regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, he has published “‘Mysterious Appearances’ in Jonathan Glazer’s Identity Trilogy: Sexy Beast, Birth and Under the Skin” in issue 15.2 of Film International. His book Fate in Film: A Deterministic Approach to Cinema is available from Wallflower Press.