Programme Note: Norwegian Wood
Please note that this article contains spoilers.
After receiving the Golden Lion in Venice in 1995 for his gritty work ‘Cyclo’ about a young rickshaw driver, Vietnamese-born French director Tran Anh Hung has made a comeback with the release of his lyrical film, Norwegian Wood, an adaptation based on the novel by Japanese writer Haruki Murakami. The novel has enjoyed global success with translations appearing in many different languages around the world. Norwegian Wood has sold more than 10m copies in Japan and 2.6m overseas since it was published in 1987.
The French-Vietnamese director, and the film's Japanese producer, Shinji Ogawa, corresponded with Murakami for four years before winning his approval to make the film in 2008. Tran Anh Hung has said that every effort was made to capture the essence of the writer's work (see Sight and Sound, November 2010).
The film centres on the troubled, at times tortuous, life of a 19-year-old university student, Toru Watanabe, played by Ken’ichi Matsuyama, and his relationships with Naoko and Midori. The backdrop to the story is late 1960s Tokyo where students are starting to rebel, although their campaigning is lost on new student Toru Watanabe, who is lost in sorrow following the suicide of his best friend Kizuki (Kengo Kora). When he meets Kizuki’s long-term girlfriend Naoko he is drawn to her troubled sadness and gradually falls in love with her. Rinko Kikuchi, who was nominated for an Oscar for her supporting role in the 2006 movie Babel (Dir. Alejandro Inarritu, 2006), plays the vulnerable Naoko. Kiko Mizuhara is impressive as the enchanting Midori (for some reason often shot in profile), with whom Watanabe also forms a bond, and balances a playful and often surprisingly racy flirtatiousness with a sense of warmth and deep compassion.
The mood of the film is close to that of the novel, underpinned by long flashbacks and the support of a voiceover from the main protagonist who tells us how the lives and love of three friends intertwine and connect in love and death. At times it seems like Watanabe’s voiceover leads through a stream of consciouness evocative of the solipsistic conversations which occur in the book.
Often Watanabe and Naoko's moments together are framed within impossibly verdant woods or falling snow and take a palpable delight in their unspoiled beauty (complimented by Yen Khe Luguern's stylish retro costumes). This romantic element of the film is enriched by Taiwanese cinematographer Pin Bing Lee's dramatic visuals. Shooting on HD, he skillfully details the play of candlelight on actors' faces and carefully frames the actors in widescreen.
A sense of melodramatic romance permeates the film and Murakami readers may be disappointed that the sexual content is nowhere near as explicit as the book's. Though sex plays an important part in the story, the lovemaking sequences lack the sheer erotic intensity of the book. The dialogue is often raw and carefully crafted. Memories from a happy childhood counterpointed by sorrow for the death of his best friend Kizuki seem to dramatically mark Watanabe’s life and his approach to his relationships with women.
A relevant theme of Norwegian Wood, both in the book and in the film, is the view of Japanese society on suicide: suicide is seen not only as a tragic way of escape but rather as form of relief. Since the novel’s publication, Murakami’s surreal treatment of the ills of modern society has won him millions of fans worldwide and a reputation for introspection. The infinite sadness and sense of mournful longing so beautifully rendered in Norwegian Wood is captured with beguiling and delicate fashion in Tran Anh Hung’s adaptation where the textured novel has been successfully transposed into a poetic and accessible screenplay.
Freelance Film Journalist
 Benedict, Ruth 1946 The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture. Boston: Houghton Mifflin
Chambers, Andrew 2010 Japan: ending the culture of the 'honourable' suicide. The Guardian, 3 August 2010