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First-time director takes on Murakami

by Kaori Shoji

Many filmmakers say the difficulties of adapting a best-selling novel to the screen can be daunting. How about the challenge of adapting a story by a foreign best-selling author (“All God’s Children Can Dance” by Haruki Murakami) from a country one had never visited (Japan) and to choose the project as a feature debut?

“As a first-time feature director, just the idea of taking on Murakami might not have been such a bright move,” says Robert Logevall, who had nurtured a career in TV and film production design in LA before embarking on this project. “It is a tall task to use such layered and beautiful material to craft your film, on top of it being your first.”

Logevall completed “All God’s Children Can Dance” in 2007 — and the film finally makes it to Japanese shores this week, perhaps to set the scene for “Norwegian Wood” (directed by Anh Hung Tran), which opens Dec. 11.

Unlike “Norwegian Wood” however, “All God’s Children . . .” makes significant departures from the original work. Logevall (working from a script by Scott Coffey) sets the story in Koreatown, L.A., and the cast is an intriguing multinational mix, including Joan Chen (“Lust, Caution”), Sonja Kinski (daughter of actress Nastassja Kinski) and Tzi Ma (“Rush Hour”). To play the all-important protagonist Kengo, Logevall handpicked Jason Lew, who teaches at New York University and is also a screenwriter.

In an e-mail interview with The Japan Times, Logevall went on to explain his own fascination with Haruki Murakami and the world he portrays.

What do you think lies behind the worldwide appeal of Murakami’s stories, and do you think it’s particularly rooted in modern Japanese culture?

I guess the connection people around the world have to Murakami’s writing is due partly to the very human journeys he portrays. Even though the settings, being Japanese, are exotic and foreign to many of his readers, I believe his protagonists are universally relatable. I think around the world, young people particularly can relate to the alienation and spiritual emptiness of their generation that Murakami evokes in his stories. Yes, his writing is very much rooted in modern Japanese society and the foreign reader will probably never understand all its layers and nuances, but nevertheless, I find it makes for a curious and fascinating backdrop. I also believe the humor and surreal elements abundant in his writing do translate well across borders.

Readers in Japan often see Murakami’s stories as heavily sexual, soul-searching journeys that offer an escape from the harshness of reality without offering any solutions. What are your thoughts?

I think that stranded feeling is another appeal of his writing: the fact that not everything is neatly tied up in Hollywood- style endings. Instead, we are drawn into very intriguing journeys and then rather unceremoniously dumped by the side of the road. A bit like real life, really.

Do you identify with the Kengo character, and do you find him compelling?

After reading “All God’s Children . . .” for the first time I was drawn to Kengo and his story in a strange way. Like Kengo, I was brought up in a very religious home, and instead of rebelling against the crazy sides of my parents’ church I wound up quietly detaching myself from them and their church. That detachment and emptiness is what I believe Kengo also displays. Again, that feeling is something I feel lot of people share today in our rapidly changing world. And that I found very compelling.