Haruki Murakami’s nostalgic coming-of-age novel Norwegian Wood is one of those books that quickly become hot film projects. A global success, selling over 10 million copies worldwide, it is the acclaimed author’s most accessible work – a story of youth, sexuality, love and loss set in late sixties Tokyo. The book’s international fan base not only indicates a successful film adaptation, but also offers Japanese cinema the opportunity to approach a more mainstream western audience showcasing a production totally different from the horror, manga and anime films or Takeshi Kitano’s idiosyncratic creations that is popular for. Of course, there’s always a difficulty in adapting books for the screen and the more famous the writer, the bigger the challenge for the filmmaker. In Norwegian Wood the main challenge is that the narrative progresses slowly with its main character largely remaining passive through it.
The protagonist is Toru Watanabe, a 19-year-old student spending his time between classes, part-time jobs and one-night stands encouraged by his dorm friend Nagawasa. His seemingly carefree student life, though, is clouded by Toru’s grief for his best friend Kizuki, who committed suicide when they were still in high school. One day, he runs into Kizuki’s long-term girlfriend, the beautiful and fragile Naoko and they soon come close to each other, drawn together by their mutual wound. However, their romance abruptly comes to a halt as Naoko, constantly tormented by the past, withdraws to a remote retreat leaving Toru devastated. Deeply in love, he promises to stay loyal until she gets better, but their relationship is increasingly challenged, not only by Naoko’s worsening condition, but also from the coming of a new girl in Toru’s life, the lively and free-spirited Midori.
This is a story of long walks and talks, long awaited letters and confessions, of longing and craving for a beloved one. The director, Anh Hung Tran (The Scent of Green Papaya), who also worked on the adaptation, smartly plays this as a mesmerising mood piece. Utilising fluid camerawork to film the heroes at the centre of imposing natural landscapes, or extreme close-ups, as if trying to read their unspoken thoughts through their faces, Tran creates a fascinating visual palette. Cinematography by the award winning Lee Ping Bin (In the Mood For Love, Three Times) is hypnotically striking, as the camera moves through endless green meadows and snowy mountains or raging waves that bring in mind Hokusai’s famous painting The Great Wave off Kanagawa. For internal and city shots, production designers Norifumi Ataka and Yen Khe Luguem meticulously replicated the 1960s backdrop and gave each space, from Toru’s gloomy dorm and Naoko’s warm retreat to ornate hostel rooms and restaurants, its own unique character. Radiohead’s Jon
ny Greenwood completes the dreamy visuals with an emotive score.
The film is a genuine treat for the eyes and its eroticism and impressionistic flair bring in mind another Asian elegiac romance, In the Mood for Love. Unlike Wong Kar Wai though, Anh Hung Tran also had the difficult task of bringing a very popular book into the screen. Probably too conscious not to let its fans down, Tran gives the feeling that he tried to include almost every episode in the three-hundred page long novel, stretching the film’s length to 133 minutes. The result is uneven: while all plot bits are in place the action feels fragmented and, sometimes, out of context – like, for example, Toru’s love scene with Naoko’s retreat roommate, Reiko. The film also encounters, I believe, a certain paradox: viewers who haven’t read the book might find it too slow, while those who have, are most likely to find it too rushed.
Being in the second category myself, I was a little disappointed, in particular, by the very little screen time dedicated to Midori. Although played with wit and charm by debut actress Kiko Mizuhara, what we see on screen is only a pale shadow of the rich and endearing character of the novel, and her relationship with Toru is barely explored. Similarly, the film loses some of the novel's poignancy when it comes to its exploration of sexuality and the affinity between sex and death. Despite these weaknesses, however, Norwegian Wood makes a faithful, stunning adaptation that is, most importantly, true to the novel’s tone with the idyllic surfaces constantly threatened by an underlying sense of loss and torment.
Aside from Tran and the meticulous production team, credit must be also given to the talented cast. Ken'ichi Matsuyama is convincing as the stoic, wounded Toru, Reika Kirishima makes a gentle, motherly Reiko and, as mentioned above, Kiko Mizuhara is a small revelation as Midori. Rinko Kikuchi is the only actor with a certain reputation outside Japan thanks to her Oscar nomination for Babel and her role in The Brothers Bloom. She seems a safe choice for the role of Naoko and, despite looking slightly too old for playing a 20-year-old, she proves with her powerful performance that she’s a gifted and versatile actress. Lastly, one of my personal favourite scenes belongs to Eriko Hatsune who, in a single extreme close up shot, conveys the tortured psyche of repressed aristocrat Hatsumi.