Norwegian Wood has long been one of Haruki Murakami’s most popular novels, selling millions of copies in Japan alone. But despite its success, Norwegian Wood is one of my least favourite Murakami novels, lacking the surrealistic magic of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle or Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the Edge of the World.
The perhaps-daunting job of directing the big-screen adaptation has fallen to the French-Vietnamese director Tran Anh Hung, who won the Camera d’Or and an Oscar nomination for his 1993 film The Scent of Green Papaya. His latest film is lovingly faithful to the spirit of Murakami’s novel, capturing the sensual and emotional longing that pervades the original - but also replicating its frustrating story and weak protagonists.
The adaptation, like the book, is often pure melodrama, mixing together love, sex and grief. The relationship between three close friends is torn asunder when Kizuki, best friend to Toro Watanabe and long-term boyfriend to Naoko, commits suicide. The two survivors pull themselves together long enough to find their way to university, where, against the backdrop of student protests in the late 60s, they meet again by chance. Their friendship is rekindled, but a sexual encounter triggers guilt and regret in the fragile Naoko, and she disappears, emerging only months later with the news that she’s sequestered herself in an institution outside Tokyo.
Naoko is tormented by a preoccupation with her feelings of loss and betrayal; Watanabe, madly in love with her, is helpless as she struggles to reconcile her despair with desire. Played by Rinko Kikuchi, best known in the West for her role in Babel (2006), Naoko is full of contradictions, but her tendency for self-indulgence, her inability to let her misguided guilt go, is as irritating in the film as it is in the novel. It’s unquestionably a sympathetic performance from the soft-spoken, waif-like Kikuchi, and anyone who isn’t as exasperated as I am by the very nature of her character might find it endearing.
As Naoko and Watanabe (played by another rising star, Kenichi Matsuyama) struggle to cope with their shared loss, he is offered solace by Midori, a fellow student who falls for him despite - or perhaps because of - his tortured feelings for Naoko. Played by the model Kiko Mizuhara, Midori’s the most likeable, charming character in the film; she’s spirited, light-hearted, and a relief from the emotional angst that weighs the film down.
Frustrations aside, Norwegian Wood is a lovely film to look at, beautifully shot by Lee Ping-bin, with a lush autumnal colour palette and an evocative late 60s backdrop. The sensual nature of the images perfectly captures the erotic tension that complicates the relationship between Naoko and Watanabe, and the bleak, emotional despair that follows Naoko’s incarceration and worsening breakdown. Lee Ping-bin’s cinematography is complemented by Jonny Greenwood’s terrific score, adding another rich layer to the film.
There can be beauty in suffering, as Tran Anh Hung believes, and for fans of Norwegian Wood, this is as good an adaptation as anyone could wish for.