At this year’s Cannes Film Festival, the Award for Best Screenplay went to Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car, an adaptation of a story by Haruki Murakami. So did FIPRESCI Prize, the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury, and no small amount of critical acclaim, suggesting that the code for translating Murakami onto the screen might finally have been cracked. Every now and again over the past forty years, a bold filmmaker has taken on the challenge of turning a work of that most world-famous Japanese novelist into a feature. But until recently, the results have for the most part not been received as especially consequential in and of themselves.
In general, short fiction tends to produce more satisfying adaptations than full-fledged novels, and Murakami’s work seems not to be an exception (as underscored a few years ago by Korean auteur Lee Chang-dong’s Burning). Hamaguchi’s film spins some 40 pages into a running time of nearly three hours, doing the opposite of what other Japanese filmmakers have done with Murakami’s short stories. In 1982, Naoto Yamakawa made one of them into Attack on a Bakery, a short film running less than twenty minutes; the following year, he made another into the even shorter A Girl, She is 100%, running less than fifteen. Today Murakami fans everywhere can watch them both on Youtube, complete with English subtitles.
The material will feel familiar to English-language Murakami readers. A main character of the story “The Second Bakery Attack” reminisces about a robbery he attempted as a hungry young man that went comically off the rails, in a manner similar to the one in Yamakawa’s first short. (In 2010 “The Second Bakery Attack,” wherein the now-married narrator robs a fast-food joint with his new bride, itself became a short film directed by Carlos Cuarón, brother of Alfonso.) Though “The Bakery Attack” has never been officially published in English, “On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning” has, and it now stands as one of Murakami’s representative short works in that language; it also, in the original, provides the basis for A Girl, She Is 100%.
“She doesn’t stand out in any way,” Murakami’s narrator says of the titular figure. “Her clothes are nothing special. The back of her hair is still bent out of shape from sleep. She isn’t young, either — must be near thirty, not even close to a ‘girl,’ properly speaking. But still, I know from fifty yards away: She’s the 100% perfect girl for me.” Yamakawa dramatizes a similar fleeting encounter and the romantic speculations that resonate in the man’s mind. Like the half-baked philosophical and political convictions of the would-be robbers, these inspire the director to the kind of visual and formal inventiveness one would expect given his background in Godard and Scorsese scholarship. But the only filmmaker name-checked is Woody Allen, which fans will recognize as a characteristic Murakami reference. So as are the inclusions of Wagner, D.H. Lawrence, jazz music — and of course, an unexpected cat.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.