Turning a well loved book into a feature film is always a
dangerous game. Devotees of the story in its original format will always
have their own images of the characters in their minds, and achieving
the breadth and depth of a book can be difficult in film form. Great
stories, however, sometimes cry out for visual form, and in Tran Anh
Hun’s Norwegian Wood, we have the image of Murakami’s original, but not
Watanabe (Kenichi Matsuyama) is a university freshman in 1960s
Japan, who despite efforts to cast off the past and start anew, is
struggling to get over the suicide of his best friend. A chance meeting
leads to him reconnecting with his best friend’s old girlfriend Naoko (Rinko Kikuchi), and the two of them forge a relationship based on their shared trauma, based more on what isn’t said than the little that is.
Naoko, unable to come to terms with what happened, sinks deeper and
deeper into herself, and a sexual encounter with Watanabe proves too
much for her. Her subsequent mental breakdown results in her taking up
residence in an isolated care home.
Wanatabe, drawn in by Naoko’s dark and vulnerable nature, combined
with feelings of responsibility for her welfare, comes to believes he is
in love with her, and swears to stick by her. Then a new girl, Midori (Kiko Mizuhara),
who is everything Naoko is not – outgoing, confident, flirty, enters
his life and Wanatabe is torn between the two women: the one who
represents his past, and the one that could hold the key to his future
In Murakami’s hands, Norwegian Wood is both dark and funny,
and moves seamlessly between exploration of society’s conception of
mental illness to the student movements of the 1960s to the aggravation
an annoying roommate can bring. The film, however, seems mostly
concerned with sex, and ends up feeling slightly soulless.
The book is full of introspection; indeed both Watanabe and Naoko are
people of few words, and it seems that the only way that Tran could get
across their angst and grief was through physical expression, and while
sex is a large part of the book too, there is enough other stuff going
on that it doesn’t take over in the same way as it does in the movie.
The film is beautifully shot, with long, drawn-out scenes capturing every subtle movement,
and complimented brilliantly by music from Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood.
The acting is similarly strong, with Matsuyama and Kikuchi marking
themselves out as young actors to keep an eye on. It is Mizuhara’s first
acting effort, and while she was not quite as vivacious as the Midori I
imagined when reading the novel, she injects some life and energy into
the otherwise sombre film.
Those that have not read Norwegian Wood may find themselves
struggling to keep up: characters are introduced and dropped without any
explanation and the plot moves along at a fast pace in order to try to
get everything in. But for those that have read the book, it ends up
feeling like a few key scenes have been filmed and the rest have been
forgotten: in other words it is not so much a feature film in its own
right as a rather long visual accompaniment to the novel. In trying to stay true to the events of the novel, Tran Anh Hun has betrayed its spirit.