Norwegian Wood (Noruwei no Mori)

April 1, 2011

The adaptation of any novel to film will always be fraught with the perils of weighty expectation. Haruki Murakami ‘s 1987 novel Norwegian Wood is no exception. Translated to English 13 years after its Japanese publication, it has reaped perhaps more feverish expectation in the lead to its recent cinematic release than many of its literary contemporaries of the last ten years. By this I discount the cash-cow behemoths of Harry Potter and Twilight; which to me are a new breed of genre unto themselves:  the teen-aimed novel series adapted to ‘dolla sign’ franchise variety . That’s not to slander this type of movie as void of merit ;  production accolades are unavoidable, they have their target audience and generally the hopes and  expectations of that audience are met,  but there’s a big difference between this kind of project and the cinema-as-art adaptations of say, in recent years, Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man.

Norwegian Wood in fact, and Murakami’s work in general, belongs to a faction of literature deemed by its fans as entirely unfilmable, untouchable: the Catcher in the Rye of its generation. Rumours of a screen adaptation were rife however for some time. With the mention of Tran Anh Hung as potential director, for all my initial excitement I didn’t truly envisage this rumour would ever come to fruition as reality, given the neverending delay on UK cinematic release of I Come With the Rain (2008)the Tran directed neo-noir thriller starring Josh Hartnett (which incidentally, gets a straight-to -DVD release this month)

Generally Murakami’s hordes of fans have been split into two camps: purists who feel what’s sacred should, just for once, be left alone; and those with enough curiousity to at least want to see the finished product, if only for the satisfaction of confirming their own cynicism. I myself would have likely fallen into the former category if not for the appeal of Tran’s directorial oeuvre (Cyclo, The Scent of Green Papaya ,At the Height of Summer) and more than this, the fact that this is not the first time Murakami’s work has been adapted to film. And successfully so. The short story Tony Takitani was brought to life on screen by Japanese director Jun Ichikawa in 2004. Though never gaining in the West the cinematic presence which Norwegian Wood has had, dvd is where it’s made its impact, quietly, stealthily garnering admiration since hitting World Cinema section shelves, riding on the waves of Murakami fever to earn its place on recommendation and promotion walls. The most important thing about Ichikawa’s Tony Takitani -the thing that commands the most respect – is how utterly perfectly it interprets and captures the Murakami tone; thus proving it can be done. A double-edged sword of course, as it sets the precedent by which all future standards can now be measured. (For a more in-depth review of Ichikawa’s adaptation of Tony Takitani please find here: https://chiaroscurocoalition.wordpress.com/2009/05/05/tony-takitani-and-the-japanese-art-of-understatement/ )

Norwegian Wood lays claim to the fact it is the debut adaptation of a Murakami full length novel and of all Murakami’s work to date, it is this work which has remained his most seminal and internationally appreciated piece:  a tale of love in its myriad forms, of youth, lust and the torturous, traumatising pain of loss. All things considered, it’s an achievement in itself that the film doesn’t collapse under the weight of its own self-consciousness and import. In fact, Tran Anh Hung has created a Norwegian Wood where it’s easy to forget the original source itself because in every way this is pure signature Tran Anh Hung. On paper, this was a marriage made in heaven- both director and writer have the unique ability to render profound metaphysical observations gracefully simple, to say far more than what meets the eyes and ears and to explore beautifully the complexities of human relationships. Both share a love of Western pop culture which permeates their work, but never forget their cultural roots, perfecting the art of weaving together both sources of inspiration. What becomes clear from Tran’s Norwegian Wood, if there were ever any doubt, is his status as an auteur  (using the visionary sense of the word here) and what he has created is undoubtedly Tran Anh Hung‘s Norwegian Wood, and much less Murakami’s. By this I’m not suggesting he has chosen to stray from the source material. The movie is faithful to the book in almost every way it can be, and the attention to detail and willingness to do it  justice are evident in its 133 minute running time ( the longest yet of any of his feature films). But we never fully get inside character Toru Watanabe’s head and perhaps for this reason something of the novel’s original tone is lost. Or perhaps it was never intended to be there. This is recognisably Tran’s film from the outset, with its quiet, slow pacing to the signature camera work, meandering  between rooms and objects, reminding the viewer unobtrusively that this is art. Silence speaks emotional volumes where dialogue is minimal -another distinguishing Tran characteristic- recalling in particular his first two films, The Scent of Green Papaya and Cyclo, in which speech is deliberately sparce, yet unrequired for the art he wishes to make.

Visually, and unsurprisingly, the film is stunning. There are shots of such mesmerising observation,of such visual feasting, the time is required to drink it all in. Emotions reverborate through the meticulous craftsmanship of cinematographer Lee Ping-Ban (In the Mood for Love), every shot considered and aesthetically sublime. All of Tran’s accolades as a director of distinguished beauty and sensual vibrancy are here on show.  If it’s this you came to see, you won’t be disappointed. Indeed it is possibly only the most vehement and purist of Murakami’s fans that will be disappointed. If it’s the indubitable Murakami tone you’re looking for, Ichikawa’s is the more suiting offering.

Sticking to his known penchant for Western music ( Previous featuring artists have included Radiohead, the Velvet Underground, Lou Reed and Debussy) Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead provides the film score. On the whole it creates somewhat of an ominous, sombre tone throughout, at points reaching a crescendo that audibly attacks the viewer – no doubt reflecting the emotional overwhelming of the characters – but proving at times a notch too diversional from the subtlety of the acting. Lighter relief comes from Can, the Velvet Underground inspired German band, who feature about four or five times throughout – and of course the title track itself which is wisely saved for the end credits (aside from when character Reiko has a hippy strum and nasal-pitched yodel -but this is rudely interrupted by, or perhaps induces, Naoko’s emotional breakdown)

The role of the mentally-delicate Naoko is well-acted by Oscar nominee Rinko Kikuchi, who seems to be reaping similar applause here as for her performance in Babel (2006). Her childlike naivete, her inability to function in a world which has moved forward whilst she has remained frozen in time, is well-portrayed and paves an understanding to Watanabe’s sense of responsibility. Like a tiny, fragile bird which he carries tenderly through life, we are led to recognise the precariousness of their relationship. The film seems to lift slightly however when Kiko Mizuhara, who plays Midori: alternate suitor for lead character Watanabe’s affections, graces the screen. Her presence is playful but understated with less sass and more visible vulnerability than the book.

It is Kenichi Matsuyama however, who plays Watanabe, who stands out with a performance that is steady and measured in its portayal of a young student quietly burdened with the desperation of trying to heal someone you love, and of the responsibilities borne of the past, whilst trying to pave a way to the future.

For Murakami stalwarts, Tran Anh Hung’s Norwegian Wood won’t necessarily push all the buttons as a straightforward adaptation of his work. As an addition to an already impressive body of work by Tran Anh Hung and a visual reinterpretation of a cult classic however, it is a work of tremendous beauty and accomplishment.

– S

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