Norwegian Wood ノルウェイの森 (2010)

Norwegian Wood  Norwegian Wood Japanese Film Poster

Japanese: ノルウェイの森

Romaji: Noruwei no Mori

Release Date: December 11th, 2010 (Japan)

Running Time: 128 mins.

Director: Anh Hung Tran

Writer: Anh Hung Tran (Screenplay), Haruki Murakami (Original Novel)

Starring: Kenichi Matsuyama, Rinko Kikuchi, Kiko Mizuhara, Tetsuji Tamayama, Kengo Kora, Reika Kirishima, Eriko Hatsune,

This review has taken me a long time to write because my reaction to the film was indifference despite the fact I liked the book. I went back to read it to see what the film lacked. It wasn’t the acting or direction but the fact that the adaptation (heroic and beautiful as it is) doesn’t capture the detail and depth that goes along hipness, grace and magic of Haruki Murakami’s prose.

1960’s Japan, a young student named Toru Watanabe (Matsuyama Ken’Ichi) reminisces about his childhood spent with best friend Kizuki (Kora Kengo) and Kizuki’s girlfriend, Naoko (Kikuchi Rinko). After the suicide of Kizuki, he leaves his hometown to attend a university in Tokyo which is in the grip of radical student politics. A chance encounter with Naoko leads to a brief fling but awakens deep feelings especially after her disappearance to a sanatorium. Whilst waiting for her to contact him, Watanabe finds himself adrift in a Tokyo full of interesting characters and relationships that will haunt and define him. This includes Midori (Mizuhara Kiko), a beautiful and vivacious student, a girl who he is attracted to despite strong feelings for Naoko who contacts him again which sets in the motion soul searching that Watanabe needs to get over the death of Kizuki.

It has been well documented that Murakami considered the novel un-filmable. It is easy to see why because adapting a 380+ page novel told in the first person requires a lot of imagination and skill to capture the voice, events and psychology of the narrator.

When it was announced that the director was Tran Anh Hung I was excited because his Vietnam-set films were beautiful, graceful and mesmerising (I taped Cyclo and The Height of Summer off BBC Four in the early 2000’s and re-watched them for weeks). On the one hand, his skill and vision makes this adaptation faithful to the book and very beautiful to look at but there is so much included yet so much left out that the atmosphere of the film never really grabbed me.

It shows the limitation of the medium of film. The novel’s first person narration builds up a unique sense of details and character that give a rich tapestry of life in 1960’s Tokyo and the people in Watanabe’s life. Even though the film is over two hours long, the film hacks away a lot of detail in favour of brief voice-overs and imagery that didn’t quite grip me. I was watching the film wondering why I should care about Storm Trooper when he appears in three scenes, has a few lines of dialogue and disappears. He is a poignant character in the book despite being minor. In the film he’s just minor.

Perhaps it was inevitable considering the number of characters but that doesn’t stop the actors giving it their all. There are many long takes with weaving conversations and Matsuyama Ken’Ichi proves a great lead but it is Kikuchi Rinko who deserves most praise. She captures the febrile nature of her character, displaying a fragility that masks anger, hatred and uncertainty. She was just as I imagined Naoko and the most powerful thing in the film. The other actors are just as good but Kikuchi Rinko acts up a storm.

The direction is also good as the mise-en-scene is superb. The arrangement of visuals and sound are excellent, bringing many moments from the book to life – there are many beautiful extreme long shots and pans of Japanese landscapes that show the strengths of cinema. One scene that was magical for me was the rooftop conversation between Toru and Midori, different from the book but spectacular to look at. So successful were the actors and the direction, I decided to just luxuriate in the images, certain that I would like to spend more time in the world the film created.

In fact, I felt that if this had been a television series allowing the script to breathe and the characters to grow, this would have been a classic. Despite the problems in the abbreviated adaptation of the novel this film is one of flawless beauty – well shot, well acted scenes – beautiful cinematography. I found much pleasure in just looking at the images but the story deserved similar treatment.