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Haruki Murakami and Cinema

Haruki Murakami is a best-selling author, short-listed for the Nobel Prize in Literature, regularly featured in The New Yorker, the darling of more book clubs in the West than in his native Japan. Collector of jazz records, T-shirts, and, as a runner, marathon miles.

This article is no attempt to comment on his literary work. His status and oeuvre simply are too voluminous for this modest space.

His work has been adapted many times for this big screen and is endlessly appealing to filmmakers.

The Vietnamese French director Tran Anh Hung read Murakami’s first major international success, the novel “Norwegian Wood”, in 1994. “I immediately wanted to make it into a movie”, he told the Hollywood Reporter in 2010. It took him ten years of stubbornly pursuing the very reluctant novelist. After another four years, Tran Anh Hung finally got the go-ahead, and his film Norwegian Wood was released in 2008.


“I’ve read some other love stories,” Tran explained his obsession during the same interview, “but this one was very special. The book reveals some shadows that are hidden inside of you. It is about love and lost love. It’s about mourning. It’s about feelings of making up with life after the death of your loved ones.”

The Korean auteur Lee Chang-dong chose Murakami’s short story “Barn Burning” as the basis for his film Burning. Asked at the Cannes Film Festival 2018 what the attraction of this particular story was, he tried to verbalize his personal response to its underlying emotions: “I find it hard to explain myself. Whether a story is fun or moving or might receive good reviews is honestly not that important to me. It’s a very intuitive feeling that I have. It’s sort of a very sensitive and intuitive decision-making process that happens within me.”

The appeal of Murakami’s skill of making the inner emotions of his fictional characters resonate in readers, has been seconded by Ryusuke Hamaguchi, the 42-year-old director of the latest Murakami adaption, Drive My Car. During a conversation with the New York Times in the offices of Janus Films, one of the distributors, he said: “Murakami’s writing is wonderful at expressing inner emotions, and I think that’s why people want to adapt them.”


But it would be a mistake to conclude that Murakami’s writing lends itself to easy adaptions, added Hamaguchi. “Those inner feelings that are so characteristic of Murakami’s work, are really difficult to re-create in film. Fundamentally, I don’t think that Murakami’s works are made for adaptation.”

The director is referring to Murakami’s use of magical realism, which is sometimes compared to dreaming. Murakami in his novel “Sputnik Sweetheart”: “I dream. Sometimes I think that’s the only right thing to do”.

No matter what images and sequences appear, a dream always remains real as a dream. When you learn about a man who reads dreams buried in the skulls of dead beasts after having checked in his shadow at the city’s gatekeeper, this story always remains real as a story (from “Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World”).  

But, according to Hamaguchi, therein lies a problem: “Murakami is able to go back and forth between things that are realistic and things that are not real. But when you put that in a film, it can easily become a little silly. That’s why I chose Drive My Car where the story remained in a realistic world.”

Murakami’s short stories have been adapted more often than his novels. Carlos Cuarón, brother of Alfonso and the co-screenwriter of Y Tu Mamá También, made a short film of The Second Bakery Attack, starring Kirsten Dunst. There are quite a few short film adaptions, the most recent ones are: Gorzko! (by Michael Wawrzecki), Hanalei Bay (by Daishi Matsunaga), The 100% Perfect Girl (by Johan Stavsjö), Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman (by Pierre Földes) is currently being filmed.

In almost all adaptions of his work into film, Haruki Murakami wrote or co-wrote the screenplay. This is remarkable considering his initial refusal to have any of his writings transformed into film. His reason, as stated in an interview with the New York Times in 1990: “It’s enough for a book to be a book.”

In Japan, this attitude was considered strange and even arrogant. Especially coming from a man who in his youth studied film and writing plays with the aspiration of becoming a director.

Obviously, his attitude has changed. But not his ambition to be a director himself: “Do I imagine the scenes play out in my head while I write? Of course,” he told the New York Times. “In fact, for me, that is one of the joys of writing fiction — I’m making my own film. I make it just for myself.”