Norwegian Wood Review
by Richard Donovan, June 2012
Despite the film's being released in Japan in 2009 and doing the rounds of a number of international film festivals, an English-subtitled DVD of Norwegian Wood only came out in the US in May 2012.
Vietnamese director Tran Ahn Hung's attempt at a film version of Haruki Murakami's famed novel Noruwei no mori suggests why, apart from the clearly well-founded reticence of Haruki Murakami himself, so few of his books have been turned into movies, and even these slow to be English-subtitled.
Tony Takitani, based on the short story of the same name, is the only other attempted to date, and I found that a pretty indifferent work. In short, not a lot happens in the movie, and what does is desperately titivated and over-dramatised in an attempt to make up for the lack of Murakami's lovelorn narrator.
Murakami's novels revolve around the interiority of the narrator, usually a guy in his mid-30s with a quasi-Western sensibility who spends a lot of his time reflecting on the mundane profundities of existence.
This might not be such an issue were one staging the fantastic landscapes of such works as Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World, but in Norwegian Wood, when you strip away Murakami's deceptively low-key commentary, you're left with the fairly mundane plot and a few nondescript locations.
Unfortunately, a movie expresses ideas largely through what it shows rather than what it can tell, since film operates with exteriority - images - rather than descriptive interiority, even allowing for the clunky crutch of voice-over narrative. Thus one can argue that Norwegian Wood, in particular among Murakami's works, is inherently unsuited to film.
Tran does his best to make the locations cinematic, and this imparts a literally green cast to the film, as if he is re-invoking the luck verdancy of his native Vietnam in A Scent of Green Papaya.
The scenes in Midori's apartment, with their tropical plants hanging off balconies, patinated wooden interior, and sudden rain showers, is redolent of nothing so much as the slumbering backstreet tenements of Hanoi.
Tran attempts to characterize his main characters through their surroundings, a common method of circumventing the ideational limitations of film. This is fairly successful, though it is achieved through considerable distortion of the original material.
For example, Naoko and Tōru Watanabe are reunited in Tokyo not on the crowded train of the original, but beside a placid lotus pond, the gentle sighs of the wind somehow reflecting Naoko's uncertain femininity.
One of the 'signature' suicides takes place in winter rather than the original summer, presumably because snow is a more poignant, and photogenic, backdrop - and one is, presumably, more angsty in the cold.
My overall complaint, then, is that Tran has beautified Norwegian Wood, to the detriment of its sense of authenticity. Midori is more restrained than in the novel; Reiko's wrinkles, and quirkiness, have all been ironed out.
Seedy love hotels transform into kaleidoscopic pleasure palaces. While it is hard to think of someone more appropriate - and appropriately named! - to compose the soundtrack than Radiohead's Johnny Greenwood, the deft use of spare guitar and chamber-group arrangements too often gives way to over-orchestration in the latter stages: turgid sub-Shoenbergian string sections rise and fall, underlining the unstable emotional states of the protagonists, as if that were necessary.
But there are moments of brilliance and insight. In one bravura tracking shot lasting several minutes, cleverly conflating several similar scenes from the book, Tran unrelentingly tracks the camera alongside Naoko as, like a caged, traumatised animal, she rushes from one side of an open field to another, with Watanabe in thrall beside her, completely inadequate as a substitute for her beloved Kizuki. Rinko Kikuchi, best known in the West for her breakthrough performance in Babel, gives a riveting performance here, even if it does perhaps dissolve into histrionics at the end.
The dynamic Midori (Kiko Mizuhara) is maybe the most shortchanged in the movie, with her role reduced to that of a convenient foil to the obviously dominant position of Naoko in this reimagined universe, her vivacious sexual imagination, clearly set in contrast to Naoko's pseudo-virginality, largely bowdlerised.
Watanabe's overweening obsession with Naoko is clear in the book, too, but there Midori is given her own space and is not constantly compared with Naoko, as she is in the movie, with its almost unseemly juxtapositions. Here, Midori's life-force - "I'm a real, live girl, with real, live blood gushing through my veins." (Jay Rubin's translation of Murakami) - is subdued, her tenacity in overcoming a series of hardships that rivals Naoko's underplayed.
Further, Watanabe, supposedly our eyes and ears in the film, is portrayed as completely subservient to the whims of the women in his life, even Reiko at the end. This indecisive wimp is less well drawn or deprecatingly self-aware than the Watanabe of the novel - a disappointment, as actor Kenichi Matsuyama, who gave a memorable performance as the sweet-toothed teenage genius in the Deathnote movies, is capable of more nuance.
Overall, because it cannot muse on things as explicitly as the novel can, the film lacks the psychological complexity of the original, and tries to make up for it in stunning visuals and a superior soundtrack recreating the sights and sounds of a late-60s Japan that is intriguingly filtered through a funky Vietnamese sensibility.
But the film never penetrates to the heart of the dark wood that haunts the narrator of Murakami's novel, ultimately leaving us on the outside peering in.