[9 January 2012]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“Kizuko and I had a truly special relationship. We talked about everything.” Remembering her dead boyfriend, Naoko (Rinko Kikuchi) sets rather a difficult precedent for her live one. Indeed, as he listens to her, Toru Watanabe (Kenichi Matsuyama) is barely keeping up. Walking across a grassy expanse at night, she strides with unknown purpose, her arms held close to her chest, twisting her white blouse in a kind of agony. Watanabe trots along with her, following, watching, hoping. He’s in love with her, he’s told himself and others. But she doesn’t talk to him about anything.
This moment comes midwayish in Norwegian Wood (Noruwei no mori), Tran Anh Hung’s film of Haruki Murakami’s 1987 novel, as both Naoko and Watanabe are struggling to have a romance despite and because of their ongoing grief over Kizuko’s (Kengo Kôra) suicide. Neither has been able to talk about the loss, with each other or someone else. Instead, they’ve devoted themselves—separately and desperately—to remembering him as the perfect 17-year-old companion they imagined him to be.
Such remembering structures the film, as it cuts back and forth in time according to Watanabe’s narration. The first brief scenes show all three friends playing games, swimming, and lolling among flamingos in 1967. Following the news of Kizuko’s death, Watanabe initially leaves for school in Tokyo. Here, he says, he seeks respite from the “vague knot of air inside me,” most immediately by befriending his playboy roommate, Nagasawa (Tetsuji Tamayama).
It’s the late ‘60s, and the film notes in passing that students are protesting (“The world is drowning in problems more profound than Greek tragedy!” one young man exhorts his professor), but Watanabe tends to walk past the raucous crowds on the sidewalks impassively, as if in a dream. He’s more interested in Nagasawa’s exploits. “Is it true you’ve slept with 100 girls?” Watanabe asks. “More like 70,” comes the answer, just before Nagasawa invites his shy new buddy on an evening’s adventure: “Don’t worry,” he smiles, “It’s easy.”
It may be. The film doesn’t spend much of its two hours plus running time observing these exercises in boy decadence; that said, Watanabe does point out that Nagasawa’s bad behavior hurts his girlfriend, Hatsumi (Eriko Hatsune), who loves him so very much that she goes along. Watanabe goes so far as to admire her capacity for love, her ability to accept whatever pain her man inflicts. Observing this dynamic, Watanabe might feel a distance, and for the moment, anyway, avoids even the whiff of guilt, for he has no girlfriend. He has only longing.
This changes when he runs into Naoko, who invites him for a walk. As they make their way through the park, she shyly confesses that she’s not sure what to talk about. “I can’t say what I want to say well,” she sighs. “Sorry.” Watanabe reassures he, “Don’t worry, I don’t talk much either.” And so their relationship is pretty much defined: he tries to keep up and she remains elusive. Through this pattern they relive - again and again—the loss of Kizuki, without having to articulate it. “The dead will always be dead,” she says by way of excusing their mutual silence on Kizuko. “But we have to go on living.”
As they are young beautiful people, their most immediate means to this end is sex. Holding to this melodramatic formula, they first engage following a bout of sorrow: as Naoko sobs, he tries to comfort her, and they fall into each other’s arms and share a revelatory night. Following, Naoko disappears, inspiring Watanabe to write her several letters, which he scribbles in close-up and also reads aloud for your benefit, so you know how much he feels, if not precisely what.
As Norwegian Wood exploits the clichés, it hardly seems unaware; still, it keeps its perspective securely inside Watanabe’s. As he sees his passion to be earnest and profound, so the film shows long, aching shots of woods and grass and snow. This especially when he learns where Naoko has gone to, a sanatorium in the mountains, where she’s watched over by a 30something music teacher Reiko (Reika Kirishima), who serves as a chaperone when Watanabe comes to visit. Or, she’s a chaperone when she knows what’s going on; more often, she’s becoming too attached to Watanabe herself, or the youngsters are sneaking away for long nighttime walks, pledging their undying attachment, if not precisely their love.
During one of these walks, Naoko makes clear her particular concern that in her deep and true love for Kizuki, she was unable to “get wet,” but in her different and unarticulated feeling for Watanabe, well, she was instantly “really wet” (a fact she checks with him before believing it herself). He doesn’t have much of a response for this, except to compare himself to the absent perfection of Kizuki: he’s jealous and she’s still incomprehensible. The point is made again and again, as they look out windows, watch each other from distances, or, listen to Reiko sing “Norwegian Wood.” As she completes the lyric, “I once had a girl / Or should I say, she once had me,” Naoko bursts into wrenching sobs, leading directly to his expulsion from the room.
At this point, it’s helpful to remember that the film holds fast to Watanabe’s limited view, even when it seems externalized. As Watanabe tries to figure out the girls around him—including yet another back at school, Midori (Kiko Mizuhara), who has an unseen boyfriend but is unaccountably entranced by Watanabe—he doesn’t try very hard to figure out what parts he plays in their conundrums. Somehow, the movie proposes, he’s not the same as Nagasawa, even if he does pick up and swap girls with him. “I’m not hiding anything,” he tells Hatsumi when she asks about his girlfriend. “It’s just complicated.”
Hatsumi smiles politely and suggests he should take care of his relationship rather than running around with Nagasawa. “That kind of behavior isn’t right for you,” she insists, because Watanabe isn’t like her boyfriend. Watanabe believes it.