Norwegian Wood is the first great U.S. release of 2012 (the film played international festivals in late 2010 and 2011). Obviously it takes its title from The Beatles’ song, and the line “I once had a girl, or should I say, she once had me,” was in part the inspiration for the Haruki Murakami novel of the same name. The film adaptation concentrates on Toru Watanabe, a Japanese university student in the 1960s, and his love affair with his childhood friend, Naoko.
Watanabe’s best friend growing up was Kizuki, and Kizuki and Naoko had been inseparable throughout childhood, and were in love with each other. Because of their close friendship, Watanabe often found himself tagging along with Kizuki and Naoko, a third wheel. But as the film opens, and shortly before their graduation from high school, Kizuki kills himself. After a period of time, Naoko seeks Watanabe out at school. They start spending time together, and although they don’t speak directly about Kizuki, his death has obviously deeply affected both of them and they struggle to make peace with it. A romance between them blossoms, partly born from the pain and absence of their friend. But Naoko isn’t ready for this, and checks herself into a sanatorium in the country to recover her emotional, spiritual, and physical health. Watanabe visits her and verbally commits himself to her, but his life is further complicated by philosophical head-butting with his roommate Nagasawa and his growing affections for another girl he meets at school, Midori.
Norwegian Wood is perhaps the wisest, most poetic, poignant, and beautiful film I’ve ever seen about grief, loss, and love. It’s a heartbreaking work, made so by the stark truth of Watanabe’s and Naoko’s emotional journeys, a uniformly excellent cast, and gorgeous cinematography. Ken’ichi Matsuyama as Watanabe and Rinko Kikuchi as Naoko are so full of tenderness, vulnerability, honesty, and emotional depth. Their performances fully realize the kind of romantic love, longing, and openness of youth, something as time-worn adults we often struggle to hold onto or recapture. It’s a purity of feeling that doesn’t always survive the unspooling years of life while maintaining such sharpness and brilliance.
From what I gather, parts of the novel have been cut from the film, as often is the case with any film adaptation, and less time is spent with the characters of Midori and Reiko, Naoko’s roommate at the sanatorium. While I’m sure there is something lost as a result of the excising, as someone who hasn’t read the novel, I can only state how well the film works with the cuts. I imagine to fully incorporate these other characters’ stories would require a running time well beyond most feature films and would essentially add an extra act onto Watanabe’s story, framing his relationship with Naoko in a more contemplative way. By focusing more on their relationship, the story remains very vital and raw.
In one scene, Watanabe is elated after receiving a phone call. The camera follows him and spins as he climbs a circular staircase, emulating his joy. Another scene has a character camping near the sea during a period of grief. This grieving and mourning could have been depicted anywhere. But to have the character camping outside for who knows long, almost risking physical survival, while the waves crash angrily all around and storms rain down, makes for a series of images portraying an inner turmoil as powerful as the undeniable and unstoppable forces of nature surrounding. Ang Hung Tran works effortlessly with his actors and obtains exquisite performances from them, but he also has a great eye for the visual and for framing his shots. His close-ups are intimate and sensual; and he effortlessly pulls physical textures from his settings, often in nature-shot scenes, that are so tactile and evocative they affect the overall tone and mood. And he’s able to pair his skill working with the actors and his visual sense so that they complement each other and create synergy with one another.
In an age where American films have become increasingly commercial to the point that everything else is all but excluded, it’s also refreshing to see a film where the characters are allowed to live and breathe and develop slowly along their own idiosyncratic patterns, without the confines of a tightly-structured Hollywood construct and a ticking narrative plot-device clock. There’s a patience in the telling, and the intelligence and sensitivity of both the characters and the narrative is an extremely welcome breath of fresh air. One of the questions in my head during an early part of the film, was if Kizuki and Naoko were so in love with each other, then why did he kill himself? I quickly decided they must not have been, that on some level, his love was unrequited. And if his love was unrequited, it didn’t seem like the obstacles between Watanabe and Naoko would be able to last very long. But as the story develops, we learn more about why Kizuki killed himself, and the characters’ emotions and their relationships come into a clearer focus and the relationship between Watanabe and Naoko becomes deeper and more complex.
Love is portrayed in all of its power; not only as life-supporting, but also as a destructive force of unparalleled strength. In fact, as a result of certain scenes being so emotionally honest and raw, it became evident to me how certain Japanese horror conventions had been born– the entities of films like The Ring or The Grudge. Here in the States, our horror usually comes from the outside. Even when a director like Cronenberg (who’s Canadian, no less) features our bodies revolting against us in gory ways, it’s something foreign being born from within us, something we don’t recognize. Much the same with something like Alien. But those Japanese horror conventions are the result of something inside us, something that is us, and yet something that is too strong for us to control. Grief, rage– emotions that are a part of us yet over which we have no more control than a tornado or a hurricane. The spectres in those films are so driven and consumed by their emotions that even in death they can’t let go, and their hunger to fill a bottomless well of pain and need is so unstoppable that it reaches through death and consumes everything. Of course, Norwegian Wood is no horror film, not in a conventional sense. But parts of it equally capture that feeling of our emotions being an integral part of us and yet something far too powerful to be within our control, even the way those emotions can then reach out and touch those closest to us like an infectious plague. Some of us are able to survive this kind of storm; some of us simply aren’t built to be able to weather it. And perhaps, even for those of us who can, in doing so we have to numb ourselves to the intensity of who we are; perhaps the price of a longer physical life is that we have to live it while partly dead inside.