How soulful a movie is ''Tony Takitani"? Well, its writer and director, Jun Ichikawa, turns a clothing obsession into a profound existential predicament. Adapted from a Haruki Murakami short story, this is a wisp of a film that despite its simplicity is hardly slight. The story involves a technical illustrator, the titular Tony Takitani (Issey Ogata), an unassuming fellow who, for most of his life, has mistaken loneliness for independence.
Now in the thick of middle age, he realizes he's completely alone, and it's awful. Then he meets a woman named Eiko (Rie Miyazawa). He invites her to lunch and five dates later asks her to be his wife. Not only is she pretty and 15 years younger, but, as he tells his bride-to-be, something else caught his eye: her fashion sense, which is best considered severe couture -- lots of pricey fabric blends and expensive-looking shoes. And she works on it -- a lot.
Eiko is good for Tony. He can stop setting his little table for one and admire his wife's chicness. Early in their relationship, he says, ''I've never met anyone who inhabits her clothes with such obvious relish." Actually, Eiko is such a voracious shopper she could probably do it with ketchup and mustard, too. It doesn't take long for bags to pile up on the backseat. A room in Tony's sleek, modish apartment has to become a walk-in closet.
Will Eiko come to her senses? ''I'm self-centered," she says. Before she met her husband she spent entire paychecks shopping. In her defense, Eiko explains that the clothes compensate for what she thinks she lacks inside. Plus, they're beautiful. You know both that she's serious and that the clothes are expensive because in a lot of her outfits Eiko looks simultaneously fabulous and absurd.
But the movie is not a satire, not detectably. Ichikawa gives Tony and Eiko considerable gravitas. They're two tragic people. He suffers from a melancholy for which companionship is merely a palliative. He seems to have acquired the painful artist's introversion that his jazzbo father (also played by Ogata) seems to have been spared. Meanwhile, Eiko's shallowness is a curse, but Ichikawa is careful not to treat it like a crime. Narcissism isn't what attracts her to clothes. It's their beauty. Indeed, her shopping excursions are filmed, like the rest of the movie, with sadness, mysticism, and reverence.
The film itself is also a beautiful work of art, exquisitely framed and precisely envisioned. From Hirokawa Taishi's patient, gliding photography to Ryuichi Sakamoto's emotive score, the film achieves a hypnotic mood. And Ichikawa's direction is as delicate as Murakami's prose, which has a tendency to slip from the movie's voice-over narration and into the characters' mouths.
This is the first of Murakami's works to be turned into a film, and the worry was whether the loneliness and sensuality of his writing could be captured without forcing conventional narrative situations upon it. Like a Toni Morrison or Gabriel Garcia Marquez book, an entire Murakami novel still seems hard to pin down cinematically. Where, in adapting it, does one begin? But his certainty with ''Tony Takitani" suggests that Ichikawa could make a case for trying.
And if he does, he should take Ogata with him. The actor has a lived-in face and resigned demeanor that are ideally suited for some of Murakami's more doleful passages. Usually a long face is an unfashionable selling point for an actor. But this one wears it well.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.