Toru Watanabe is a 19-year-old Tokyo college student, a recluse amongst the endless student protests of the 1960’s and haunted by the loss of his best friend Kizuki to an unfathomable suicide two year earlier. Toru’s only friends are Nagasawa (Tetsuii Tamayama), a debonair serial womanizer, and roommate “Storm Trooper” an earnest, bullied hayseed. Toru’s monotony of menial jobs, casual sex and inane politics is suddenly enlivened by the reappearance of Naoko (Rinko Kikuchi), Toru’s childhood friend and lost Kizuki’s lover. Then he meets Midori, a precocious waif who fascinates Toru. He finds himself increasingly split between the complexities of his relationship with Naoko, to whom he is bonded by grief and profundity, and the progress of his everyday life, which Midori moves through effortlessly.
Norwegian Wood is an adaptation with incredibly integrity. Murakami’s novel is a highly descriptive and compartmentalised text. The visual instructions of the book are realised with no alteration of Murakami’s voice. Screenwriter/director Anh Hung Tran’s film is quieter and more subdued than the novel, simply for the absence of pages of words, which are transformed instead into unspeaking visuals. In the novel equal credence and attention is given to explaining the suicide as the various components of Midori’s outfits, and now in the film, those details, left nonverbal, shrink into the background. I fear that those who haven’t read the book will not ascribe significance to these things.
This description of the banal everyday world, the encroached-upon wilderness, brand new parklands, tinkling door-beads, concrete architecture, high-waisted jeans, the turquoise public swimming pool, record covers, maroon skivvies and student riot banners; this is all surprisingly crucial to the crux of this tragic tale. For at heart, Norwegian Wood is a story about discovering how to be happy. Its moral is that to be content, one must be observant and appreciative of every small beauty one encounters, and to allow those beauties to fill you up with joy. Those characters who meet with tragedy are the ones to whom life seems unreachable, who long for the presence of loved ones yet simply daydream beside them when they arrive.
The life of Norwegian Wood as a literary export is a tale often swathed in Western indignation, as though Japan had been hiding the brilliant book and author, and then putting off the subtitled release of a film version. The adaptation has been a slow-tracked process by Hollywood standards. At just over two hours, I’m not surprised the whole text didn’t fit in the feature. The casting of Kiko Mizuhara as Midori surprised me a little. I had expected a young woman who had chosen to adopt childish qualities, rather than a woman who looks like a child. Reiko’s squeamishly powerful backstory also left her presence in the plot a little undernourished, but as far as adaptations go, this one is as direct and tonally accurate as can be hoped.
I am often intrigued by the way Murakami expresses the behaviour of women, Norwegian Wood being no exception. Watanabe and Nagasawa are detached and passive men, ruled by a kind of unthinking logic, a dormant modernity that allows them to accept all events without strife. The women, especially Naoko, seem to be ruled by a kind of magic, a supernatural whirlwind of unexplainable womanly complexities and fluctuations that range from sexual anxiety, to perversion, to near-spiritual turns of feminine madness that seem more fitting for Ophelia or Greek oracles than in the 20th century. This otherworldly connection is expressed beautifully by the poetic forest scenery, in which Naoko is embedded at a holistic recovery colony in the mountains, perhaps in echo of Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain. Even the ancient, uncontrollable force of the roaring ocean becomes Toru’s consoling companion in Naoko’s place. When the wild/tamed dichotomy is reversed between Nagasawa and his girlfriend Hatsumi (Eriko Hatsune), their relationship is characterised as bad and unnatural.
Norwegian Wood is home to one of the best and most authentic sex scenes I have ever seen. This is largely a triumph of Foley. There’s no music apart from the melodious moistness of lips, sweat-laced grasping and the rain outside. The camera is offset on a diagonal, less than a foot away from the faces of the lovers. It’s recreating the feeling of being a lover, the shuffling proximity you’d feel, the strange view you’d have, obscured by one another’s’ bodies and the sweetly humid sounds made as skin touches skin. This creates the illusion that the audience is not a spectator, or even privy, but part of the scene, having a tacit familiarity with it. It’s highly watchable, not embarrassing or voyeuristic in the least. Tonally, these visceral sex scenes are a wonderful counterpoint to the significance of the sex itself, which for Murakami is rarely just about pleasure.
This is a film of gentle beauty. Japan in the 60s was a surreal place. Sprawling green countryside interloped between classic modernist architecture in a very Wright-ian manner, entangling verdant flora with textured grey college buildings. In Tokyo, a new kind of lassaiz-fair was taking hold, which Norwegian Wood was able to capture aptly: a population of young adults, orphaned to the city and having little interest in career or stability. Instead all aspirations were bent on the ‘now’: reading Western literature, working dead-end jobs to afford Beatles records, getting drunk, smoking and sleeping with someone cute from the student bar. What Norwegian Wood did was discuss this culture in a way that humanized it, made it timeless, regardless of the newness of these emergent attitudes. It’s a cherished story in Japanese literary history.
Norwegian Wood was never meant as lively entertainment. Indeed, it uses death as a literary punishment for failing to learn how to live. It poses mortality and love and the pursuit of happiness as concurrent, indeed co-dependent natural phenomena. For me, some of that deep inseparability of natural processes was lost in the film, as was the unique sense of loss after Naoko’s death, felt as if for the first time. To casual observers, Norwegian Wood is a film in which a man chooses a well-adjusted and spirited city girl over his psychologically fraught first love. This is due both to the crushing weight of convenience and the crushing weight of mortality, and perhaps the difficulty of describing the personal growth of a character whose maturation is so subtle and quiet that it might be lost on screen.
I worry that something is amiss with this film; that its fragile meaningfulness reached only me, that everything I sensed between the lines of dialogue will be erased from my memory and lost forever. But then I remember that I felt this way after I finished the book, and that this is the same fear that consumed Naoko.