In Haruki Murikami’s fiction a sense of menace often pervades the mundane and the most familiar things have the capacity to disturb and unsettle, to scratch like a cat. In The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Toru Okada is searching. Both his wife and his moggy have vanished from his life; his days are spent hazily, folding laundry in his flat, waiting.
Many of Murikami’s novels contain a detective element, a puzzle to be solved. But just as in the work of Raymond Chandler, the thing being searched for is often secondary, and the process of investigation and exploration takes precedence. Toru is a reluctant protagonist in the classic Chandleresque tradition, stumbling through his own story, encountering sinister figures and truanting schoolgirls, malevolent dream police, half-seen shadows, and a trace of the woman he thought his wife was.
Film producer Stephen Earnhart’s adaptation has taken seven years to bring to the stage; he even spent time living in Japan, but still it struggles – perhaps unavoidably – to condense this hefty, 600+ page novel, to evoke its many layers. The production is foggy and tangled with an episodic choppiness, and it feels too obviously like a thing abridged, reduced. That is not to say it is without beauty or power but the piece is permeated by a sense of disconnect. In some ways this is fitting – syncing with the often dream-like, distant quality of the novel – but it’s too pervasive; the constant shifting in tone becomes tiring and the technical elements of the production never seem entirely integrated.
Performed both in English and Japanese, with surtitles on screens at the side of the stage, this should be the very essence of this year’s EIF, an exercise in cross-cultural conversation and exploration, and yet it contrives to strand itself in between two worlds. The production at times feels like a grab-bag of Japanese cultural markers – bunraku puppetry, butoh-inspired modes of movement, shrill, garish television shows in which people are humiliated, an unsubtle nod to the Ringu films – everything heaped in together.
The tentative friendship between Toru and May Kasahara, the smart schoolgirl with a sly, witty tongue, suffers most. In Earnhart’s version she is brattish and stroppy and it’s hard to fathom why James Yaegashi’s amiable Toru puts up with her. There’s no obligation for a stage adaptation to be slavish to its source, but this curtailed version of the text doesn’t fully satisfy on theatrical terms either. There are individual moments that dazzle, flashes of Lynchian nightmare and unexpected sparks of comedy, but they stand apart from one another. Despite the stacking of scenes, signs, silhouettes, the piece as a whole is often lacking in atmosphere; all the technical elements are in place, but everything remains rather flat and I was left wondering what you’d make of it if you had no prior knowledge of the novel.
The one aspect of the production that does penetrate, that does pierce, is the music, performed live by Bora Yoon in a striking black-feathered headdress. She creates a hypnotic soundscape, all lapping waves and metallic clangs, the filigree drip of water being poured into a bowl, and it is this music that provides the pulse that rest of the production so often lacks.