Written by by Haruki Murakami and Anh Hung Tran
Directed by Anh Hung Tran
All the truly great authors are dead. That may be a belittling statement to the contemporary literary world, but it’s a statement that isn’t without foundation. Our age is one of endless celebrity autobiographies and self help books rather than one of outstanding literary voices. Of course they are exceptions, which include Haruki Murakami, who has earned comparison to the likes of Franz Kafka and Thomas Pynchon. What makes his work so profound is the way in which he marries surrealist fantasy with the monotony of the everyday.
In this age of cross-media adaptations and endless remakes, it’s shocking that someone with such vision has had limited exposure on the big screen, with only Tony Takitani (based on a short story of thesame name) on which to call. The one book of his which he has received endless offers for big screen adaptations for is his most beloved novel, Norwegian Wood. He finally succumbed to the pressure when he was approached by Vietnamese director Tran Anh Hung for what would be his first film in 10 years. Furthermore, Murakami got involved in the project, contributing to the screenplay; therefore making this indisputably faithful to the “unfilmable” novel.
Norwegian Wood is the story of Toru Watanabe, a Japanese schoolboy who loses his best friend Kizuki after he inexplicably commits suicide. After he finishes school, he looks for a new life by going to university in Tokyo. This is 1960s Tokyo, a city populated by free love and student protests, a world which Toru struggles to find his place. As Toru tries to find his place his past catches up with him as he meets Kizuki’s ex-girlfriend Naoko whilst out walking. Although distant at first, the couple grow closer with a shared grief that eventually leads to love. Sadly, Naoko hasn’t dealt with the past, as on the one occasion they discuss Kizuki she falls to pieces, drops out of university and disappears without a trace into the vast Japanese countryside.
Just as notable as Murakami getting the big-screen treatment is the re-emergence of Tran Anh Hung (The Scent of Green Papaya). Just as was the case with Mark Romanek’s return, you wouldn’t notice this gap, as he is just as accomplished as ever. Norwegian Wood represents one of the two faces of Japanese cinema. On the one hand there is the visceral and kinetic hyper-reality and violence inhabited by Takashi Miike and Ryuhei Kitamura. Then there is the slow, beautifully shot yet hard-to-penetrate side where emotions are expressed in silence rather than exposition. This approach to cinema might very well be artistically credible and poignant in the right hands, but it will still alienate and captivate in equal measure.
There may be many recent Japanese films that come to mind that are longer, for example Sion Sono’s Love Exposure and Shinyi Aoyama’s Eureka, but these 2 and a quarter hours become almost unbearably long in the face of such ardent minimalism (not to mention self-satisaction). It would be all too easy to cleave 30 minutes from the running time and to come out with the same film. As atmospheric and beautifully shot as Anh Hung’s film is, there is far too much of a reliance on silence and scenery.
In a year where one of the big hitters (Tree of Life) is punctuated by such modes of storytelling, it’s even more glaring that Norwegian Wood is simply somewhat boring. Thankfully, the way in which the film was shot goes a decent length to make up for this. From the countryside setting to the photography, Norwegian Wood is a gorgeous film to behold. It’s not just the film that is beautifully decorated thanks to Mother Nature and the photography department; a great deal of consideration has been taken in recreating 1960’s Tokyo, from appearances to culture and style.
There is a long-take sequence that is worthy of mention. Naoko disappears to a retreat in the Japanese mountains and during one of Toru’s visits, Kizuki is brought up again. In what has been a largely silent role to this point Naoko paces back and forth whilst explaining her feelings for the man stood in front of her and her first love. All done in one shot, it displays the directorial talent of Anh Hung and the acting talent of Rinko Kikuchi – to explode with such passion illuminates the depth of this broken woman. Her opposite in Kenichi Matsuyama (Toru) may be dead in the eyes, but he expresses the growing weariness and feeling of being duty-bound to his past with impressive results.
The film’s greatest issues are narrative. What made the novel as admired was the counterbalance of misery with the occasional lulls in the tempo. Those lulls have disappeared in adapting it to the screen; as such, Norwegian Wood has become unrelenting sex and misery. This is a story of teenagers and self-pity. Fans of the book will “enjoy” this film, beyond that though what we have is an archetypal critics’ film. Everybody else will be bored to the point of disinterest. One of the more interesting characters in Nagasawa gives Toru some advice: “don’t spend all your time feeling sorry for yourself, that’s something degenerates do.” As beautifully shot as it is, the film doesn’t seem to heed the warning. Worse than any such narrative shortcoming, though, is how much of a wasted opportunity to open an author of unparalleled vision and imagination to a new audience this is.