How a Murakami story about a worm inspired two new animated films

You wait ages for a film about a giant, earthquake-causing worm, then two come along at once. Splitting the difference between Makoto Shinkai’s Suzume and new French animation Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman...

30 March 2023

By Andrew Osmond

Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman (2022)

On occasion, two films with similar subjects are released almost together, sometimes called ‘twin films’. In May 2022, two action-fantasies both crossed multiple universes, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness and Everything Everywhere All at Once. Previously, there had been rival films about Armageddon by asteroid (Deep Impact and Armageddon, 1998) and competing accounts of how Truman Capote researched his real-crime novel In Cold Blood (Capote in 2005, Infamous in 2006). 

Two more ‘twin’ films are about to open in Britain: Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman on 31 March, and Suzume on 14 April. They’re both animated films. They’re about Japan, and the emotional aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami on 11 March 2011, which killed more than 20,000 people in the north of Japan’s mainland. The films are fantasies where a great worm threatens to cause a new disaster and must be fought or contained by the heroes. Most specifically, both films are inspired by the same short story, ‘Super Frog Saves Tokyo’, by the world-famous author Haruki Murakami.  

A copy of the story is available free on the GQ magazine website. It starts with Kafkaesque absurdity: “Katagiri found a giant frog waiting for him in his apartment.” The ensuing story is often hilarious, as Katagiri, a Tokyo bank loan collector with no self-esteem, is persuaded by Frog (the amphibian’s name) to help him fight the Worm that could destroy the city in a cataclysmic quake. The story delivers and subverts its expected climax, ending with an implicit reflection on why Murakami told the tale at all.  

Both new films update the story. Murakami didn’t write it in reaction to the 2011 disaster, but to an earlier earthquake in 1995, in the city of Kobe. Beyond that, each film handles the tale very differently. Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman retells it directly, but threads it through a medley of other Murakami stories about people in post-quake Japan. The film wasn’t made in Japan, however, but in France. It was directed by Pierre Földes with Murakami’s blessing, though not his involvement.  

Blind Willow is an adult film, though its erotic scenes have little joy and its women characters come off terribly. By the end, I wondered less about the puzzle of Super Frog than whether the pervasive misogyny belonged to the characters or the film. The animation of midlife disappointments and melancholia sometimes recall Charlie Kaufman’s stop-motion Anomalisa from 2015. Amid Blind Willow’s sad characters and largely muted colours, the cheery frog shines brightest by far. 

Kaufman comparisons aside, there are few films like Black Willow. Suzume, on the other hand, comes with marketable brands. It’s a mainstream anime, and it’s directed by Makoto Shinkai on the back of his two most recent films, Your Name (2016) and Weathering with You (2019). Both were box-office hits; Suzume has already joined them, earning over $100 million in Japan. Like its predecessors, it offers lavish spectacle, a school-aged protagonist (almost mandatory in anime) and a blend of humour and adventure, populist without being synthetic. 

Suzume (2023)

Unlike Blind Willow, Suzume isn’t an ‘official’ adaptation of Murakami’s story. However, Shinkai has cited the story in interviews and its impact is plain. In Suzume, there’s no frog character. Instead a young man wanders Japan, closing magic doors to shut out an otherworld worm that could cause a new earthquake. The protagonist is Suzume, a girl who joins his mission by accident.  

At first, she seems the usual plucky anime heroine, but both she and the film are overshadowed by memories of the 2011 earthquake. The climax forces Suzume to face them full on. Behind the comedy and adventure, Suzume is about mourning and remembrance, though it eschews the ambiguity of Murakami’s story. 

In all iterations, ‘Super Frog’ uses fantasy to address a real-life horror in recent memory. A classic British precedent was the Powell-Pressburger afterlife film, A Matter of Life and Death (1946). It was made partly to encourage cordial Anglo-American relations after World War II, but it also plays as a consolatory memorial for the just-ended conflict. Eight years later, Japan memorialised the war more brutally in 1954’s Godzilla. In the central sequence, the title fantasy monster re-enacts the Tokyo firebombing which took around a hundred thousand lives.  

In anime, the precedent to Blind Willow and Suzume is a 2011 TV serial called Penguindrum. It starts as a farce about magic penguins, even more absurd than ‘Super Frog’. Then at the midpoint, it turns out the series is really exploring the fallout from the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo underground, carried out in 1995 by the Aum Shinrikyo cult. Just before this reveal, the show drops a clue that it’s mixing absurd fantasy with a Japanese trauma. The show’s heroine enters a magic library, vainly seeking a book. Its name: ‘Super Frog Saves Tokyo’. 

Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman is in cinemas from 31 March. Suzume is in cinemas, including BFI IMAX, from 14 April.

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