Norwegian Wood

Norwegian Wood

***

Reviewed by: Owen Van Spall

Adapted by award-winning director Tran Anh Hung from Japanese author Haruki Murakami's best-selling novel of the same name, Norwegian Wood comes loaded with expectations. The ruminative, melancholy and surreal writings of the ills of modern society in Murakami's works can be difficult to approach but have also have won him millions of fans: and it was Norwegian Wood that helped take him to international fame. All this brings with it the risks when adapting of failing to win either new audiences or please the existing and highly judgemental fan base. Norwegian Wood is a 'protected' work: defended by both author and devotee.

Certainly on paper it would be hard to find a more appropriate director than French-Vietnamese Tran Anh Hung. Tran's first movie, the moody The Scent of Green Papaya (1993), won the Camera d'Or at Cannes and was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Academy award. He went on to win the the Golden Lion award at the Venice film festival for Cyclo, his 1995 film about a young rickshaw driver. It took director Tran four years following an initial discussion with Murakami in 2004 to win the author's personal approval to tackle adapting the novel.

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Set in a 1960s Tokyo wracked by student protests, this Japanese-language film centres on the troubled love life of 19-year-old university student Toru Watanabe, played by Kenichi Matsuyama, and his relationships with the two pivotal young women in his life: Naoko (Rinko Kikuchi, Oscar nominated for her supporting role in 2006's Babel) and Midori (model Kiko Mizuhara in her film debut ).

Shadows of loss, mental illness, uncertainty and anguish fall over the characters from the start. Some time after the strange suicide of her childhood soulmate (and Watanabe's best friend) Kizuki, Naoko runs into Watanabe again at his Tokyo university and the two try to rekindle their friendship, with Watanabe clearly wanting more. Naoko, however, falls back into despair and depression and retreats away from Watanabe's affections to a rural sanatorium, following a night where they awkwardly consummate their repressed passions for each other. Still feeling tied in some way to Naoko as the seasons pass, Watanabe is unsure how to deal with the sudden arrival into his life of the beautiful and vivacious Midori. Seemingly the exact opposite of the withdrawn Naoko, the shockingly forthright Midori tempts and teases Watanabe while ostensibly seeing another long-term boyfriend. As Naoko struggles with her demons that prevent her opening herself up sexually, Watanabe battles his own guilt and desires.

To further complicate Watanabe's feelings, his desires to sate his lust are encouraged by his playboy friend and classmate Nagasawa (Tetsuji Tamayama). But Nagasawa's dismal treatment of his own on-off girlfriend leave Watanabe further guilt-wracked.

Truly Watanabe is not fated to enjoy a traditional Hollywood-type romance with either woman. Watanabe himself is no leading man material - a somewhat vacillating and introverted student who seems passionless in his studies and work and the political firestorm around him. Naoko, though astonishingly beautiful and fragile, is also a torturing presence in Watanabe's life as she drags him back into her vortex only to push him violently away again. And Midori, tantalisingly and ambiguously disappearing from and reappearing in Watanabe's life at will, taunts and teases him with graphic discussions of what she imagines them doing together but is never really clear what she really wants. This is love as a painful, torturing, even insane force that just seems to buffet Watanabe around on its tides and offers only ambiguity at the film's conclusion.

Despite a certain listless pace at times, Norwegian Wood benefits from an energetic soundtrack that doesn't ram home too strongly the particular period setting. The details of the Sixties are also well realised without ever becoming distracting, and the cinematography is stylish and rich as we jump from the breathtaking beauty of rural Japan in winter to the buzz of Tokyo student life. Matsuyama, who played the iconic oddball detective L in the Death Note films, takes on a far more restrained role here as the main character, but sometimes seems to disappear given how small his performance feels. Far more lively and richer are Kikuchi and Mizuhara and the supporting cast around them.

It is far from a perfect film and doesn't always seem to come alive amidst much wallowing in grief and introspection, but Tran Ann Hung has done it - he's proved with this adaptation that Murakami's most famous novel is not unfilmable.

Reviewed on: 08 Feb 2011
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Norwegian Wood packshot
The Beatles song prompts a man to remember the complicated romance, with devastating consequences, that shaped his youth.
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Director: Anh Hung Tran

Writer: Anh Hung Tran, based on the book by Haruki Murakami.

Starring: Rinko Kikuchi, Kenichi Matsuyama, Kiko Mizuhara

Year: 2010

Runtime: 133 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: Japan

Festivals:

Glasgow 2011

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