Norwegian Wood (Anh Hung Tran, 2011)

13Mar11

Rinko Kikuchi (Naoko), Kenichi Matsuyama (Watanabe), Kiko Mizuhara (Midori). Screenplay by Anh Hung Tran. Directed by Anh Hung Tran. Rating: 15. Running time: 133 minutes.

Murakami’s coming of age novel dominated by prose detailing the thoughts of a wandering teenage boy has come to the big screen, and by necessity the thought-based book has been translated into a much quieter piece of cinema. With the exception of the odd voiceover we rarely delve into Watanabe’s mind, instead being introduced to his character as if we had known him for years. The drama begins immediately with the story’s influential suicide, from which most of its tension can be traced.

The word is definitely drama. Perhaps it was the age at which I read the novel, or the state of mind I was in at the time, but I always remembered this one to be at least mildly uplifting in its affirmation of living. The beauty of one’s youthful years, the power of simple music – these are the type of things that resonated with me when I read Norwegian Wood. And you’d be forgiven for expecting something similar from Norwegian Wood the film if you checked out some of its stills. Its sets and scenery are quite remarkable. I never realised how stunningly green and vast Japan’s countryside is, and we get to soak it up here through various equally sublime seasons. Add this to the plethora of youthful faces, all gifted with the smoothest of skin and the most entrancing of smiles, and the visuals are truly getting into the territory of the divine.

And yet the tone, again, is surprisingly dark. I stress that I need to revisit the novel, because whilst it is undoubtedly true that other Murakami works set around sexual relationships are often solemn, I remembered Norwegian Wood to be a lot less heavy. Here, however, the pain is clear and real. Watanabe finds himself in a situation where he truly loves a sweet but terribly mentally fragile woman, living outside of Tokyo whilst he studies part-time in that metropolis. But he is similarly warmed by another delightful girl in the city, who would come without all the stressful baggage attached. For reasons related to his past, his loyalties lie with the former, but without any suggestion of egoism or cold-heartedness he finds himself wedged between the two, unsure of what he himself wants out of the unstable situation.

The sexual encounters and overtones are as frequent and intense as I expected, and the intimacy between the characters is conveyed surprisingly well. When the credits roll up, however, and that beautiful Beatles song starts playing, it feels strangely out of place, even if it shares a name with the film and is the inspiration for its title. The sounds feel too joyful for what we have seen, even if it’s obvious how apt the lyrics are. The song, novel and film all centre around cryptic women, and all are beautiful and movingly reflective in their own right. It is the last, however, that cuts the deepest. That may be a reflection on cinema as a medium, capable of combining dialogue, song and image into an overpowering whole. But it’s also testament to Anh Hung Tran, whose achievement here should not be underestimated.

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