Norwegian Wood | Film reviews, news & interviews
Adaptation of a classic novel that will divide audiences
Published in 1987, Norwegian Wood was the novel that turned Haruki Murakami from writer to celebrity in his native Japan. With over 12 million copies sold internationally and a cult of devoted readers waiting fretfully, the notoriously unfilmable book finally makes its screen debut under the direction of Tran Anh Hung. Described by the author simply as “a love story”, this most conventional of Murakami’s narratives picks through the emotional detritus of a teenage suicide, exposing the strands of grief and sexuality that bind our hero Watanabe to the women in his life.
“Life is too short to read books that have not stood the test of time,” proclaims young Nagasawa (Tetsuji Tamayama) early on in Norwegian Wood. It’s a flawed philosophy perhaps, but one it’s all too easy to sympathise with by the end of Tran Anh Hung’s film – a work whose relentless aesthetic appeal can surely not be enough to sustain its cold, flabby narrative into perpetuity. Dividing critics at the Venice Film Festival where it lost the Golden Lion to Coppola’s Somewhere, Norwegian Wood invites the viewer to marvel, to surrender, to philosophise, but offers little by way of humanity in return.
Set against the student riots of 1960s Tokyo, we follow loner student Toru Watanabe (Kenichi Matsuyama) as he struggles with the suicide of best friend Kizuki (Kengo Kora) and his growing intimacy with Kizuki’s childhood love Naoko (Rinko Kikuchi, pictured below with Matsuyama). The morning after their first sexual encounter Naoko disappears, withdrawing to a clinic in the mountains where she struggles with her sanity. Left alone in Tokyo, Watanabe attracts the interest of fellow student Midori (Kiko Mizuhara), whose playful spirit and emotional independence provides a disturbing alternative to the fragile Naoko.
Asked to pick a director for Murakami’s novel, it would be hard to think of a better natural fit than Tran Anh Hung. His expressive visuals, showcased in The Scent of Green Papaya, and sensitivity to music (a catalyst for memory and emotion throughout the novel) lend themselves to this tale, yet the result falls short, failing to show either Murakami or Tran himself at their best. Perhaps it’s a function of directing a film in a foreign language (Tran does not speak Japanese), perhaps the stylistic similarities of the two overburden the oblique, non-committal tone of proceedings. A beautiful score from Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood attempts to supplement the missing emotion, but its poignant Western pastoralism has little connection to the film’s Japanese milieu.
The novel tempers its tragedies with humour, an element sorely missing here. Watanabe’s tightly wound room-mate Storm Trooper makes little more than a cameo appearance, and even the lively wit of Midori is underplayed, softened with a certain sadness. Making her cinematic debut, Mizuhara is however enchanting, a petulant kitten of a creature whose delicate performance rings truer than Kikuchi’s tense histrionics. Matsuyama has perhaps the hardest job, remaining implausibly impassive until required to deliver a single extreme moment of emotional release.
While Murakami’s gaze is both clinical and intimately invasive, Tran’s film is all about the wide shot, the panorama. The pastel parks of Tokyo give way to the lush grasslands of the mountains in image after image of gorgeous elegance, courtesy of cinematographer Lee Ping Bin. Yet it all feels rather pre-packaged, rather passive; I missed the menace with which Murakami charges his beauty – “This was what you might get if Walt Disney did an animated version of a Munch painting” – the distortions and exaggerations that can turn a landscape into a prison, a haven or an enemy.
There’s a lot of talk in the production notes of sensuality, whether in Murakami’s landscapes or his sex scenes. At times erotic, at others profoundly disturbing, sensuality is however not something I took away from these episodes. The substitution of sex acts for ceremonies of mourning, loss or conflict creates a series of variations on a theme; we watch Watanabe forge a variety of physical connections, and explore the dialogue (whether sincere or self-deceiving) sex represents for these very interior characters.
At over two hours long, Norwegian Wood risks the goodwill of its viewers. The simple plot and minimal dialogue – even supplemented by the striking visuals – are just too fragile to bear this kind of weight, and deserve a much more sinewy treatment. In his attempt to condense so much material, Tran has jettisoned valuable details while retaining the extraneous. The result is the fleshier, rather less articulate cousin of Murakami’s novel.
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