Film

'Norwegian Wood' Is Pretty Onscreen, But Puzzling

Rinko Kikuchi and Ken'ichi Matsuyama in Norwegian Wood (2010)

Haruki Murakami's Norwegian Wood has been referred to as the "Japanese Catcher in the Rye", but J. D. Salinger said that his book was not actable and he would never sell the rights to Hollywood. Maybe Murakami should have listened to Salinger.


Norwegian Wood

Publisher: Vintage
Length: 298 pages
Author: Haruki Murakami
Format: Paperback
Publication Date: 2000-09
Amazon

Norwegian Wood

Director: Tran Anh Hung
Cast: Ken'ichi Matsuyama, Rinko Kikuchi, Kiko Mizuhara, Reika Kirishima, Tetsuji Tamayama, Kengo Kôra
Studio: Asmik Ace Entertainment
Release date: 2011-11-06

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.

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.

Music


Books


Film


Recent
Books

In 'Wandering Dixie', Discovering the Jewish South Is Part of Discovering Self

Sue Eisenfeld's Wandering Dixie is not only a collection of dispatches from the lost Jewish South but also a journey of self-discovery.

Music

Bill Withers and the Curse of the Black Genius

"Lean on Me" singer-songwriter Bill Withers was the voice of morality in an industry without honor. It's amazing he lasted this long.

Film

Jeff Baena Explores the Intensity of Mental Illness in His Mystery, 'Horse Girl'

Co-writer and star Alison Brie's unreliable narrator in Jeff Baena's Horse Girl makes for a compelling story about spiraling into mental illness.

Music

Pokey LaFarge Hits 'Rock Bottom' on His Way Up

Americana's Pokey LaFarge performs music in front of an audience as a way of conquering his personal demons on Rock Bottom.

Music

Joni Mitchell's 'Shine' Is More Timely and Apt Than Ever

Joni Mitchell's 2007 eco-nightmare opus, Shine is more timely and apt than ever, and it's out on vinyl for the first time.

Music

'Live at Carnegie Hall' Captures Bill Withers at His Grittiest and Most Introspective

Bill Withers' Live at Carnegie Hall manages to feel both exceptionally funky and like a new level of grown-up pop music for its time.

Music

Dual Identities and the Iranian Diaspora: Sepehr Debuts 'Shaytoon'

Electronic producer Sepehr discusses his debut album releasing Friday, sparing no detail on life in the Iranian diaspora, the experiences of being raised by ABBA-loving Persian rug traders, and the illegal music stores that still litter modern Iran.

Television

From the Enterprise to the Discovery: The Decline and Fall of Utopian Technology and the Liberal Dream

The technology and liberalism of recent series such as Star Trek: Discovery, Star Trek: Picard, and the latest Doctor Who series have more in common with Harry Potter's childish wand-waving than Gene Roddenberry's original techno-utopian dream.

Music

The 50 Best Post-Punk Albums Ever: Part 2, The B-52's to Magazine

This week we are celebrating the best post-punk albums of all-time and today we have part two with the Cure, Mission of Burma, the B-52's and more.

Music

Emily Keener's "Boats" Examines Our Most Treasured Relationships (premiere)

Folk artist Emily Keener's "Boats" offers a warm look back on the road traveled so far—a heartening reflection for our troubled times.

Music

Paul Weller - "Earth Beat" (Singles Going Steady)

Paul Weller's singular modes as a soul man, guitar hero, and techno devotee converge into a blissful jam about hope for the earth on "Earth Beat".

Games

On Point and Click Adventure Games with Creator Joel Staaf Hästö

Point and click adventure games, says Kathy Rain and Whispers of a Machine creator Joel Staaf Hästö, hit a "sweet spot" between puzzles that exercise logical thinking and stories that stimulate emotions.

Music

The 50 Best Post-Punk Albums Ever: Part 1, Gang of Four to the Birthday Party

If we must #quarantine, at least give us some post-punk. This week we are revisiting the best post-punk albums of all-time and we kick things off with Gang of Four, Public Image Ltd., Throbbing Gristle, and more.

Music

Alison Chesley Toils in Human and Musical Connectivity on Helen Money's 'Atomic'

Chicago-based cellist, Alison Chesley (a.k.a. Helen Money) creates an utterly riveting listen from beginning to end on Atomic.

Music

That Kid's 'Crush' Is a Glittering Crossroads for E-Boy Music

That Kid's Crush stands out for its immediacy as a collection of light-hearted party music, but the project struggles with facelessness.

Books

Percival Everett's ​​​'Telephone​​​' Offers a Timely Lesson

Telephone provides a case study of a family dynamic shaken by illness, what can be controlled, and what must be accepted.

Reviews

Dream Pop's Ellis Wants to be 'Born Again'

Ellis' unhappiness serves as armor to protect her from despair on Born Again. It's better to be dejected than psychotic.

Music

Counterbalance No. 10: 'Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols'

The Spirit of ’77 abounds as Sex Pistols round out the Top Ten on the Big List. Counterbalance take a cheap holiday in other people’s misery. Right. Now.

Film

'Thor: Ragnarok' Destroys and Discards the Thor Mythos

Taika Waititi's Thor: Ragnarok takes a refreshingly iconoclastic approach to Thor, throwing out the old, bringing in the new, and packaging the story in a colourful, gorgeously trashy aesthetic that perfectly captures the spirit of the comics.

Music

Alps 2 and Harry No Release Eclectic Single "Madness at Toni's Chip Shop in Wishaw" (premiere)

Alps 2 and Harry NoSong's "Madness at Toni's Chip Shop in Wishaw" is a dizzying mix of mangled 2-step rhythms and woozy tranquil electronics.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews
Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.