The literary fiction of the celebrated Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami presents a strangely intoxicating world in which characters wander around the urban environments of major cities, or the rural outskirts, experiencing chance encounters and unusual events that may be pre-destined while feeling strangely adrift from the society to which they supposedly belong. They eat noodles, listen to jazz music, and read books, while trying to make sense of mysteries that are more a result of post-modern condition than any over-arching conspiracy. Novels such as Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (1985), The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1995), Kafka on the Shore (2002), and After Dark (2004) are steeped in an offbeat atmosphere that delights the author’s legion of admirers, but prompts detractors to insist that Murakami is simply very good at writing about nothing in particular. Murakami’s stories are vividly told and his themes are entirely contemporary, yet Kazuki Omori’s l Hear the Wind Sing (1981), Jun Ichikawa’s Tony Takitani (2004), Robert Logevall’s All God’s Children Can Dance (2008), and Tran Anh Hung’s Norwegian Wood (2010) are the only feature-length adaptations of his considerable body of work to date. Starfish Hotel takes its inspiration from Murakami’s fiction, most notably the deadpan noir of A Wild Sheep Chase (1982) and the midlife crisis of South of the Border, West of the Sun (1992), with writer-director John Williams arguably getting closer to capturing the unique style of the author’s prose than most of the filmmakers who have opted for the official route.
As with Murakami’s stories, Starfish Hotel adopts various characters, plot devices, and places, then connects them in a manner that could be accused of convenience or contrivance, even if the eventual links do not always make sense. Arisu (Koichi Sato) is a bored Tokyo salaryman who lives a humdrum existence, alternating his time between the bland surroundings of his office and safe comfort of his apartment. When his wife Chisato (Tae Kimura) mysteriously disappears, Arisu suspects that her sudden vanishing act may be due to her discovery of his affair with Kayoko (Kiki), an alluring young woman who he met while out of town on business. Out of concern that Chisato may have fallen victim to something more sinister, Arisu enlists the help of the police, but also conducts his own investigation, coming into contact with Mr Trickster (Akira Emoto) a volatile alcoholic who wanders the streets in a rabbit suit in order to promote the latest novel by popular mystery writer, Jo Kuroda (Kazuyoshi Kushida). Arisu is a fan of Kuroda’s work, and once wanted to be a novelist, but failed due to a lack of imagination. However, his increasingly desperate search for Chisato takes on the form of a mystery story as he is drawn to Wonderland, an adult club in the downtown area, and recalls his affair with Kayoko at the barely-staffed Starfish Hotel, which stands in a largely deserted snow-covered town, but may just be contained within his dreams or subconscious, as influenced by Kuroda’s fiction.
Through interweaving the influence of Murakami with personal thoughts on mid-life crisis and sexual desire, Williams, a Westerner who has been based in Japan for a number of years, has created a multi-layered cinematic puzzle that unravels in ways that are as fascinating as they are unexpected. Characters are not always as they seem, or at least refuse to conform to archetypes, creating tension between what could be real or imagined: Mr Trickster displays a destructive temperament, yet turns out to be a darkly comic figure with a tragic streak rather than a violent antagonist, while Kayoko is undoubtedly alluring, but is more of a vulnerable romantic than a femme fatale. Starfish Hotel was shot on digital video, enabling Williams to craft a stylistically complex film with relatively limited resources. Benito Strangio’s cinematography effectively creates worlds-within-worlds, as the anonymous commercial sheen of Arisu’s office, the grime of downtown Tokyo, and the stark beauty of rural Japan come to represent different pockets of reality, or aspects of Arisu’s psyche. Scenes shot outside Tokyo, particularly Arisu’s encounter with Kayoko at the titular hotel, and a climactic walk into an abandoned mine that echoes the closing passage of Dance Dance Dance (1988), have an otherworldly quality, suggesting a dream logic which is more directly alluded to when Arisu descends into the sleazy environment of Wonderland. The meaning of Starfish Hotel may be as mysterious as its plot, but such elusiveness makes it perfect late-night viewing for anyone who has exhausted Murakami’s back catalogue.