The title, Norwegian Wood has had a few incarnations. It started as a Beatles song (on Rubber Soul), then was used as the namesake of Japanese author Haruki Murakimi’s 1987 beloved novel, and was finally adapted into a film made by Tran Anh Hung, which was released in Japan late last year and in the US this month.
The story’s premise is weighty. Quiet, 19-year-old Toru Watanabeent is a student in Tokyo in the ‘60s. He’s recovering from his best friend, Kizuki’s, suicide amid political upheaval and university riots. When he finds himself involved with Kizuki’s former girlfriend, Naoko, his world is turned on its head.
After Naokao winds up in a sanitarium in the wilds outside of Kyoto, Watanabe begins making frequent trips to visit her. There, he meets Naoko’s roommate, Reiko, a colorful musician with a long history of mental illness. The three become fast and close friends.
(Vintage; US: Sep 2000)
Ken'ichi Matsuyama, Rinko Kikuchi, Kiko Mizuhara, Reika Kirishima, Tetsuji Tamayama, Kengo Kôra
(Asmik Ace Entertainment; US theatrical: 6 Nov 2011)
While Watanabe professes his love to Naoko, back at college he becomes involved with an effervescent girl named Midori, with an interesting story of her own. Watanabe’s struggle between the two young women and the loss of his best friend captures the innocent and poignant time in life when the future seems infinite and the present imperative.
Murakami’s novel has been referred to as the “Japanese Catcher in the Rye” by critics. During his lifetime, J. D. Salinger said that Catcher in the Rye was not actable and he would never sell the rights to Hollywood. Murakami’s novel was sold, but maybe he should have followed Salinger’s observation.
The story of Norwegian Wood is stretched across the film’s canvas thinly, the narrative nearly lost in translation. There’s very little dialogue and anyone who hasn’t read the book will surely be left scratching his/her head, wondering what on earth is going on. The film rushes into the story, and skips over some wonderful material.
The book opens with Watanabe, now in his late 30s, on a plane that has just landed in Germany. As a cover of the Beatle’s Norwegian Wood plays over the PA system, he states: “The melody never failed to send a shudder through me, but this time it hit me harder than ever.” From there, he looks back to his youth and his time with Naoko, Reiko, and Midori. Unfortunately, in the film, we never see this older, wiser Watanabe, or learn the tie he has to the song.
There are places; however, where the story is colored in. For example, Watanabe’s intense relationship with Naoko is at the center of the film. Kenichi Matsuyama, who plays Watanabe captures the character’s mystery and earnest nature. Naoko, played by Rinko Kikuchi gives a spot on performance as the grief-stricken, mentally unstable girl in the book. Her frequent outbursts are so heartfelt; they’re hard to watch. She’s ghost-like, wandering through the tall grasses and trees in the verdant fields outside the sanitarium, clutching Watanabe and crying. When she isn’t crying, she’s trying to have sex with Watanabe, despite a physical inability to be intimate with him that is never explained.
Midori, played by Kiko Mizuhara, is the girl back in Tokyo and the breath of fresh air Watanabe surely needs when he returns from his visits with Kaoko. Mizuhara is wonderful as the energetic, delightful girl who dirty talks her way into Watanabe’s heart and does it with a wry smile.
While we only get to see him for a few minutes, Kengo Kôra captivates as Kizuki. His suicide scene is chillingly unforgettable. Unfortunately, the intense relationship between Kizuki, Watanabe, and Naoko is glossed over while it is given a lot of attention in the book and also gives weight to the blossoming relationship between Watanabe and Naoko.
There are other important relationships in the book missing on the screen, as well. The most disappointing example is the friendship between Watanabe and Naoko’s roommate, Rieko. In the book Rieko is a quirky character who takes up many pages with her charming personality and offbeat looks. In fact, her rendition of the Beatles’ Norwegian Wood is partially where the book gets its name. Reika Kirishima plays Rieko and seems much younger and more toned down than the character Murakami describes in the book:
“Wildly chopped, her hair stuck out in patches and the bangs lay crooked against her forehead… She wore a blue work shirt over a white T-shirt. Her lips moves constantly to one side in a kind of ironic curl, and the wrinkles at the corners of her eyes moved in tiny twitches. She looked like a kindly, skilled, but somewhat world-weary woman carpenter.”
Despite the holes in the film’s rendering, the cinematography is a feast for the senses, filled with dream-like images in breathtaking landscapes. Hung filmed the outdoor scenes in Mineyama and Tonomine Highland where vast plains of wind-bent silver grass and snow capped mountains serve as the backdrop of Watanabe’s and Naoko’s love affair. These unforgettable shots, coupled with the gorgeous soundtrack headed up by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, capture the mystical atmosphere that Murakami created in the book.
The film’s beauty aside, Hung skimmed the surface of Murakami’s book. While Murakami’s novel is steeped in mystery, the film just comes off confusing.
I doubt anyone could adapt the book into film and do a good job in under four or five hours. Hung’s film clocks in at just over two hours, but the loss of so many pulsing characters as well as the inner life of Watanabe (particularly the grown up Watanabe looking back at his youth), shreds the story’s message and delivers a juvenile, yet gorgeous, love story, instead.