Norwegian Wood (2010)

Author: Patrick Galvan
August 7, 2014
Note: review may contain spoilers

Haruki Murakami's acclaimed novel Norwegian Wood was one of my first forays into Japanese fiction, and for maybe no other significant reason than that, reviewing its 2010 film adaptation is almost mandatory. The order in which I experienced both the novel and the film is a genuine reverse for me. Typically, I go into movies with little to no beforehand information (usually a basic plot description), and if I find myself utterly spellbound and later discover the film that impressed me so is based on a book, I become determined to hunt down the source text. But I read Murakami's novel first and later saw the film, which was directed by Tran Ahn Hung, maker of The Scent of Green Papaya. And, in a sense, I'm glad the read came before the screening. For even though I enjoyed the film and understood what it was going for, I probably understood it as well as I did because I went in knowing what to look for and what to think about. As a result, I was able to bridge certain gaps, both narrative and symbolic, the movie struggles to jump over. It's a good film, but an imperfect one.

Murakami's basic plot is preserved: a young Japanese man, Toru Watanabe (excellently played by Ken'ichi Matsuyama), grows up of the 60s, ignoring the clashes of student political activism occurring around him, far more concerned with that universally recognized conflict of love. Except his case is on the level of the extreme. Watanabe's high school best friend Kizuki abruptly commits suicide, and Watanabe finds himself consoling—and falling in love with—Kizuki's now-traumatized girlfriend Naoko (Rinko Kikuchi). The two of them eventually sleep together, and Naoko subsequently disappears. Before and after this, Watanabe limps through earning his education (he doesn't really know he's interested in, apart from classic books) while simultaneously interacting with the people—and their intimate relations—around him. Amongst them: a prim lothario named Nagasawa (Tetsuji Tamayama), his spellbindingly lovely girlfriend Hatsumi (Eriko Hatsune), the older Reiko (Reika Kirishima), and the exuberant, life-loving Midori (Kiko Mizuhara).

To begin analysis on a positive note, director Tran Ahn Hung has fashioned a movie that is indelibly beautiful from beginning to end. Looking back on the picture, I cannot think of a single shot or sequence where I found myself quibbling about lighting, composition, or camera movement. And frequently, the skill behind the camera is what makes Norwegian Wood an interesting cinematic experience. I am always impressed when I viscerally realize the filmmakers had to invest days—if not weeks—into achieving so much as a individual shot or sequence. A key example: at one point, Watanabe reunites with Naoko, and the two of them go have a talk in a grassy field. And by 'a talk,' I mean Naoko storms angrily around in a zigzagging pattern, venting with passionate anguish, while Watanabe struggles to keep up with her. This scene is photographed in one long, unbroken, several-minute take, the camera following the two characters around in the field. The same camera watches when Naoko breaks down and runs into the distance with Watanabe in pursuit. Scenes such as this get the audience involved in the creative process of filmmaking, because we wonder, as we watch, a number of technically relevant questions: how many times did the actors rehearse this? How long did the crew plan this, setting up lights and laying down dolly tracks? And, most importantly, just how many times did the actors have to run back and forth in that field (without fumbling a single line or gesture) before the director finally saw a take he was comfortable with printing.

Other shots linger in our minds because of their ambiguity. There is a lone, never-repeated image of Watanabe watching a goldfish struggling to swim about in a puddle too small for it. I don't know whether this shot stands for anything (I don't recall any equivalent in the novel) or if it's just something for the character to look at, but my aesthetic curiosity was evoked, and that just might have been what Hung was after.

Not to mention the picture is beautifully photographed (special credit must be given to cinematographer Pin Bin Lee), especially the interiors, which are lush and frequently drenched with shafts of blue light. I also wish to commend director Hung for directing the erotic scenes with restraint: there is no explicit nudity in the sexual scenes, and none is needed, for each and every one of them is not about what the characters are physically experiencing, but what are going through emotionally.

Norwegian Wood is well-paced, and that might also be part of what saves the picture from a skimpy narrative. There are numerous moments in this picture where those unfamiliar with Murakami's book are bound to be left with befuddled expressions. Example: the first time Watanabe and Midori meet. Midori approaches Watanabe in a cafeteria, questions him, establishes a dynamic we know will continue into the story, and suddenly, in the very next scene, we see them walking in the woods, and she is apologizing for missing a lunch date. A lunch date we did not see or hear mentioned before. A scene is missing. Similarly, in the denouement, Watanabe and Reiko spend a night of erotic passion together, which comes, as the film presents it, seemingly out of nowhere. The ending lacks the beforehand setup, context, and visceral passion that made its counterpart in the book completely understandable—and foreseeable—by the audience. Reiko played an enormous part in the novel, and everything that happened between her and the protagonist made sense. Here, Watanabe and Reiko share very few scenes together before this emotional finale, and as a result, it's not made clear why they are drawn together. The only possibility I could figure is that the sex was a way to give one another relief, as they are both grieving over a suicide. But it's not made clear to us. In this regard, the movie's ending merely summarizes what had physically occurred instead of offering interpretation as to what the characters are going through.

Initially, I wondered if the film I'd seen had been truncated (it wouldn't have been the first time a foreign picture was cut up by distributors), but as far as I can tell, the subtitled print available to us westerners is exactly identical to the one released in Japan. Once again, I was able to fill in these gaps myself—because I had studied the novel ahead of time. Those going into the movie fresh are likely to come out with some questions, and the movie will not offer much help in terms of answering them.

The performances are universally top-notch. Matsuyama plays Watanabe exactly as I imagined him: internally agitated, and yet capable of composing himself all the way through. Kikuchi (whom readers of this site are bound to recognize from the recent productions Babel, Pacific Rim, and the first American telling of The 47 Ronin) is magnificent as the troubled Naoko. Midori is well-played by Miko Mizuhara (vibrant and alluring), although I wonder what sort of performance she might have given had the screenplay demanded a more vulgar, abrasive character. The other players are competent as well, even if their roles limit any chance to be memorable. The one remaining performance worth drawing attention to is that of Eriko Hatsune's, as the lothario's devoted girlfriend, with how Watanabe has an almost-but-not-quite romantic attachment to. Within her limited number of scenes, the immensely beautiful and alluring Hatsune creates a character that could have sustained her own movie. As a result, we share Watanabe's amiable crush on the character and find ourselves similarly spellbound—and empathetic—that such a lovely person, whom all of us would want to reach out to and take care of, could fall so obediently in love with a treacherous and ill-minded player.

With one or two notable exceptions, the film does manage to convince us of the intimacy between its characters. Watanabe and the people around him do seem viscerally charged and inhibited by their emotions and feelings toward one another. For that reason (as well as the acting and just how amazing the film looks) Norwegian Wood succeeds as a cinematic experience. I encourage people to see it, but reading Murakami's novel first might be a wise precaution.