Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, Pierre Foldes

Pierre Földes on Murakami Adaptation ‘Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman’

French-American composer, painter, and film director Pierre Földes talks about his unbridled animated adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s stories, Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman.

Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman
Pierre Földes
31 March 2023 (UK)

“I was born to be a painter”, says Pierre Földes, the French-American composer, painter, and film director behind the enchanting and surreal Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman – an animated adaptation of stories from three anthology collections by Japanese author, Haruki MurakamiBlind Willow, Sleeping Woman from 2006, After the Quake from 2000, and The Elephant Vanishes from 1993. 

Set in Tokyo a few days after the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, the story follows Komura (Amaury de Crayencour), an unambitious bank employee whose wife Kyoko (Mathilde Auneveux) leaves him. Into their tale of marital woe is woven the mystery of their missing cat. Elsewhere, disillusioned accountant Katagiri (Arnaud Maillard) is haunted by a giant frog who recruits him to save the city from destruction by a giant worm. 

Somewhere, on the move between festival appearances, Földes answers questions shared with him via email. 

Földes is the youngest of three brothers. His father was an artist, sculptor, animator, and director, but his grandfather was a doctor. He tells me that his creativity went against his father’s wishes. “When I was maybe five or six years old, my father told me one day, ‘I wish one of you would have been a doctor.’ That phrase said it all. It was already impossible in his mind that any of us would be anything other than artists.” He adds, “I was born to be a painter; I’m quite sure of that.”

Despite this bold declaration, Földes never felt shackled to one form and acknowledges the importance of actively exploring his creative voice. “Somehow, at some point, I found myself shifting my creative energy into music. It taught me to concentrate. I also did some acting, and that gave me a taste for actors and films. Much later, I started making my own live-action and animation films.” He continues, “For me, it’s all pretty much the same. It’s just about using the different tools I’m lucky to have, to express what’s in my mind. I have a constant [creative] flow that needs to come out, one way or another.” 

Inspiration, Földes says, comes not only from other artists but life itself. “I’m inspired by other people’s art, music, books, and films, but mostly by the world in which I live. I wish it were a nicer one. One way or another, I transpose all of that into something I think is real.”

The director first read Murakami when he was living in New York, consuming the stories as if they were a single book. For Földes, New York is the perfect place to read Murakami’s stories, and his encounter with the Japanese novelist exposed a similar beat of humanity that would reunite them one day.  

“Later, when I started making my own films, I was fascinated by urban loneliness and people’s inner worlds – their sadness, deeply hidden and mysterious, almost magical worlds. Murakami’s stories resonated the same way, and I decided to adapt some of his short stories.” Approaching the author, he was given a green light by a member of his team, and Földes sought to adapt Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman first. Without Murakami’s involvement, he took advantage of the freedom to adapt the stories as he saw fit. 

We should never mistake the deep respect of where this adaptation comes from. “Murakami has written, as far as I’m concerned, amazing books and a few maybe slightly less amazing ones. But once I admire an artist, I accept him or her fully,” Földes declares. “If everything were equally great, it would mean the artist had not taken risks or tried different approaches. I’m convinced Murakami never wanted to repeat himself. Even in his books that I like less, there are always beautiful pages, characters, and worlds.”

Word has it that Murakami is a difficult author to adapt. In the last few years, another adaptation of a Murakami short story has been making noise – Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s 2021 Oscar and Cannes Award Winner, Drive My Car.

“I’ve yet to see Drive My Car because I was still working on my film,” says Földes. “I remember reading the story and thinking, ‘Oh, I could make a film out of this…’ I also remember thinking it would be almost too easy – too straightforward. I don’t find Murakami difficult to adapt at all. All it takes is to jump, eyes shut, from the top of a mountain and dive into a deep lake. You must lose your grip on most things, drown and wake up. Piece of cake.”

The animation of Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman is visually stunning, and the style of animation enhances the film’s soulful, emotional expression. Utilising complimentary animation techniques, a live-action shoot, and 3D motion capture presents the film in a richly-layered 2D layout. In the shadow of Hamaguchi’s recent and celebrated adaptation, it affords Földes’ film a singular presence.

“I decided to use animation because it allowed me to paint my perception of things more acutely than I could have done with live action,” he explains. “Concerning the characters, it allowed me to refine the interpretation to show only what I needed to show, in the same way that an artist draws an amazingly expressive nude with a few lines, which tells you so much more than a photo.”

Despite the control offered by the animated form, his approach remained humble. Földes knew when to relinquish control, too. “Accidents happen when you’re trying to go someplace or do something specific, and something unexpected occurs that takes you off track. I’m not trying to go anywhere. I listen carefully to my inspiration and let it flow – it’s much smarter than I am.” He adds, “I shaped the film in this way, as I saw the story bursting out of the maze I had created – as I saw characters, linking one with another, and as I saw a common timeline make its way little-by-little through stories that didn’t know they were connected.”

Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman is a playful film with subtle humour. It elicits chuckles when the humour is obvious, but it’s almost silent at other moments. It’s unclear whether Földes wrote the script with a humorous intent, or if the humour is organic. 

“I didn’t try to put something into the character’s words, but I applied that ‘something’ into who they are,” he tells me. “We all need humour. We all need to have a little perspective on ourselves. I can’t stand films, people who take themselves too seriously, or others who need to laugh or joke about everything. I’m happy when I see a film or read a book that just makes me smile throughout it, and then it suddenly cuts my breath short.”

Playfulness is present in Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, but there’s also a thoughtful thematic consideration. The story contemplates our need for connection with a sense of personal and professional belonging. It also addresses valuing unexpected connections and remaining open to experiences and self-discovery. Földes considers how our lives can become claustrophobic, how we should look to expand them, and the importance of valuing our imagination to liberate ourselves.

“I’m interested in reading the deepest thoughts one has,” he says. “Those deep instincts that direct our lives – what we can’t put into words. Though there’s a lot of dialogue Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, I’d say it’s mostly about reconnecting with that ‘something’ that gathers our senses into a thing that’s beyond understanding – that something that is behind our eyes, inside our ears, at the tip of our fingers. I’m more excited about expressing all this with characters and stories I take from an amazing author than trying to demonstrate it with some boring images of nature. I need to have some fun.”

The director takes a quick turn in the conversation. “I wonder if most stories aren’t coming-of-age stories.” Much of Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman is about the anxiety, turmoil, and uncertainty of being the authors of our own lives. After his wife leaves him, he has never tried to reconstruct his life. He’s like a sailboat driven by the whims of the wind. Meanwhile, his wife and Katagiri are consciously aware of their desires, engaging with the world in a way that Komura does not. 

“Aren’t we all looking for the truth? If one is one’s choices, surely one makes wrong choices at times, and either you keep going full steam, or you look back at your actions and try and figure out if they make sense.” He explains, “Sometimes understanding you’re not living with the right person can come after looking at images of an earthquake, or realising you’ve been blocking your emotions can be revealed while listening to a Mozart piano concerto. Perhaps finding an imaginary friend can help, at times, create a better image of oneself. Maybe most changes do need to come from inside one’s self for them to be meaningful and to be true.”

As we enter into a more philosophical conversation, Földes quickly reminds me that seriousness should be tempered. “I’m touched to see that the younger audiences seem to ‘get’ the film rather than analyse it. They take it as an immersive experience that’s both fun and refreshing, and from what I’ve heard, inspiring,” he tells me.

“I’m very grateful to Mr. Murakami for letting me do whatever I liked with his stories – they inspired me to keep being audacious. I also love the subdued erotic energy that reads between the lines – I need that in everything I do. I think everyone does; it’s life. I love feeling that in films and stories, and I hope people get that lively, subtle energy from the film.”

Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman played at the Glasgow Film Festival 2023, followed by a theatrical release from Modern Films in the UK on 31 March 2023. The film opens in the US at Film Forum and Laemmle Theaters on 14 April 2023.