A deep dive into the animated collage which adapts Murakmai’s short stories.
I sit down with Pierre Földes while his debut feature, Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman (an animated film, adapting a handful of stories by Haruki Murakami) plays at the Glasgow Film Theatre a few blocks away. I ask him about reaching out to Murakami to adapt his work: “It’s not like a casual conversation between buddies”, he says, politely discarding my image of the pair seated opposite each other in some Tokyo café, jazz playing in the background) He does, however, recall writing a letter to Murakami and his representatives. It was “a very sincere, very honest letter”, he says, “speaking from my heart”. In fact, Földes had been familiar with Murakami’s work since before becoming a director. He recalls recommending another filmmaker to adapt the author years earlier, during his time working as a composer. “He should’ve listened to me,” Földes muses, playfully. “Later, when I started making my own films, I thought ‘hey, to hell with it, I’m going to do it.’”
I ask if he had a distinct vision of the shape his film would take when he pitched it to Murakami’s team. “It’s not that I had something very precise in mind,” he muses. The clear picture came later, as he perused the “pool of short stories” offered to him for adaptation. “The only thing I could think of was to sort of put them one after another, but I wasn’t very satisfied with the idea,” he admits. The current structure of the film, which blends the source material through consistent characters and overarching threads, came to him during the writing process. “I really started doing some more intense, interesting scriptwriting,” he explains, “putting all these stories together, intertwining them. Placing a common chronology, and putting characters from one story [into] another. It just sort of all made sense to me.”
I wonder whether the similarities between Murakami’s usual first-person protagonists proved useful in adapting his source material. “Of course,” he affirms. “An author, a writer, is in a sense always writing from [their] own point of view, and is in a sense creating the same type of character,” he says. His fondness for the intricacies of adaptation is clear. “I wouldn’t say it becomes a mess, it becomes a jungle, rather. And then you find your way through this jungle. It’s fascinating.”
I ask Földes about one of the film’s subtler changes to its source material. Several of the adapted stories were set during the aftermath of the 1995 Kobe earthquake. Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman keeps the post-earthquake setting, but shifts the time period to 2011. This, it turns out, was a matter of memory. “That Kobe earthquake isn’t something I really remember so much,” he explains. “Whereas the  tsunami, it’s something […] anyone who was around saw a million times, like the twin towers.” It’s clear the post-disaster footage stuck with him: “It’s there and I can [still] see those images. I just thought it was natural to change it,” he says.
I ask him whether, when re-reading the source material, he did so with a conscious eye towards which tales would lend themselves best to animation. “I wasn’t too wired,” he replies. “I just thought: ‘I’ll find a way,’ you know?” He describes a sort of proto-storyboard, coming to his mind during the initial stages of adaptation. “You start seeing a shot here, or a sequence […] suddenly you wake up one morning and ‘oh!’ you have this vision of a scene and you write it down and then you keep going like that,” he says. “Once you have many of those, and then you start creating links, and once your script is ready then you’re really ready to start doing the storyboard.” Földes was adamant upon storyboarding the film alone. “I mean I tried for a week, working with someone else,” he comments, “and then I thought ‘no! I really want to define all these things’ […] if I’m capable of asking the questions, it means that I almost know the answers.” It’s a process he recommends to others as well. “I’m repeating this all the time to other filmmakers. I’m telling them: do your own storyboard. It’s the best thing on earth.”
I wonder if this process, finding his own answers, is why he was compelled to take on so many roles for the film (writing, directing, composing and storyboarding). Földes cites his history with a variety of fine arts as motivation for this compulsion. “I’ve always been an artist. I was doing music, drawing, painting and directing […] so of course, I have ideas on the whole thing,” he says. “I’m very happy to work with loads of collaborators,” he clarifies, “but we’re following my vision. It’s not a matter of being [an] egomaniac, or whatever. I have a vision of something I want to create, I have loads of people helping me do it, but it’s my vision.” I ask him about the film’s most unique visual choice, the mysterious ‘ghosts’ which populate the scenery, representing (at least to me) souls lost in Japan’s 2011 earthquake. “It just came into my head,” he says. “I can explain it, [but] I don’t think it’s the most interesting thing to explain it […] I can say that it’s a way of trying to express, more precisely, what I have in my mind.” This precision is what draws him to the animated medium. “When you’re dealing with animation, you can allow yourself to go further [than live-action,]”, he says. “You can make what I like to call a kind of ‘enhanced reality’”.
Towards the end of our discussion, I ask him why he thinks adapting Murakami has grown so popular among arthouse filmmakers: “I think he talks, or writes, about stuff that touches us all personally”, Földes responds. It was this personal touch which drew him to adapting the author’s work in the first place. “The people who like Murakami, I believe, are like me; interested in ordinary people, but going into the magical world we all have inside”, he says. He prefers this intimate storytelling to broader social commentary, when it comes to narrative. On hot-button topics like immigration, he says: “they’re very important points that I’m more interested in reading about than seeing in a film. Somehow, when I see [these issues] in a film, I have the impression that people are, a little bit, exploiting something. And meanwhile [the filmmakers are] making a good living out of it, and they’re putting a little storyline in there, and I’m not very comfortable with all that.”
This isn’t to say Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman doesn’t have a broader message of its own. To Földes, it’s a message which looks inward. “I’m more interested in very personal, deep things,” he says, “in relationships but also in something deeper than that – some strange world we have inside.” He describes the film as exploring “a […] quest to be heroic towards oneself […] to manage to have the courage to become who you really are.” Földes argues that this is what the film gently urges its viewers to do, examine themselves; “to be able to look at yourself, to open your eyes”. “I think people just go around with their lives, without really trying to be honest, [without] looking at the truth”, he states. “I mean, we’re all little miserable people”, he concedes, but “we’re also magnificent animals. I don’t know how to say this, but I think there’s a certain respect one should have towards oneself, as an animal [or] a human being.”