March 16, 2011 NSR Admin

Norwegian Wood (15)

If ever there’s a film to cause equal amounts of anticipation and nervous worry amongst a fanbase, this must be it. The first film adaptation of a Haruki Murakami novel (and, for his readers, it might be understandable why it’s taken this long for anyone to feel brave enough to transpose his surreal, heart-wrenching prose into celluloid), and of his best-known work no less, Norwegian Wood comes with a great burden upon its shoulders. It’s to the film’s great effort then that it carries it so effortlessly.

First: the inevitable. As a Murakami enthusiast, no film can ever compare to his work, and there are several problems with the film for his more hardcore fans:  the absence of several sub-plots, such as the almost complete omission of the bizarre flatmate Storm Trooper and the relegation of the student riots to only a few background shots in the opening reel – an aesthetically pleasing piece of cinematography, but narratively a little unsurprising. The removal of the flashback aspect of the novel – of a chance hearing of Norwegian Wood (the song) bringing back memories of youth in a Proustian rush – does remove some the book’s poignancy, and makes an already bleak narrative even more gloomy without this reveal of a viable future for the central protagonist.

But the central narrative of the transition between adolescence and adulthood amidst a doomed love triangle is portrayed beautifully here. Toru Watanabe, struggling to cope with the suicide of his best friend Kizuki (portrayed in a stark, shocking scene early in the film), moves to Tokyo for university, and amidst the chaos and isolation of student life finds himself torn between Kizuki’s girlfriend, the damaged Naoko, and the outgoing, confident but also troubled Midori. While Kenichi Matsuyama playes Watanabe as perhaps just a little too self-involved, the rest of the cast fills the roles of the novel perfectly: Rinko Kikuchi in particular excels as Naoko, externalising her ravaged psyche without delving into scenery-chewing antics and remaining sympathetic.

Director Tran Anh Hung develops a unique strategy to translate Murakami’s poetic novel into film though. While the screenplay frequently quotes from the source, Tran allows silence to dominate the picture: whole scenes pass in quiet, brooding solitude, his still direction turning the film into a series of still lifes – the doomed lovers, struggling against life and growth, set against the beautiful Japanese landscape. Jonny Greenwood’s score refrains from overt drama or catharsis, heightening the delicate but gripping emotional fugue of the film. The few pieces of other music chosen – notably two Can tracks and, of course, the titular Beatles track – provide just enough mise-en-scene to keep the film plausibly ‘60’s, while still evoking Watanabe’s isolation from youth culture and society at large.

While the novel may always win against the adaptation, Tran Anh Hung and his creative team have managed to make a Norwegian Wood that, on its own terms, faithfully brings the story and the atmosphere of Murakami’s delicate bildungsroman to the cinema. While one dreads the prospect of any more Murakami tales being brought to the screen (brave is the director who would tackle Kafka on the Shore or Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World) Norwegian Wood is a gripping, meditative film that ought to delight the Murakami faithful while bringing new fans into the fold with its delightfully still, immaculate visuals.

Mark Corcoran

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