‘I would stare at the grains of light suspended in that silent space, struggling to see into my own heart. What did I want? And what did others want from me? But I could never find the answers.’ Such is the searching soul of Toru Watanabe, the romantically-troubled young hero of Haruki Murakami’s 1987 novel Norwegian Wood whose extra-curricular university experiences have enthralled over 10 million readers worldwide. Norwegian Wood is the kind of ‘popular novel’ that legitimises the often-derided literary form in that it is accessible and exotic, yet quintessentially Japanese. Murakami’s references to Western popular culture – The Beatles, Jim Morrison and John Coltrane, among others – lend universality to a story that takes place in late 1960s Japan when many young people were protesting against the political order, while the author imbues even the inconsequential details of student life with a hazy sense of nostalgic longing. Norwegian Wood is not the first film to be based on Murakami’s fiction as it follows Hear the Wind Sing (1981), the shorts Attack on the Bakery (1982) and A Girl, She is 100 Percent (1983), the haunting Tony Takitani (2004) and a strange stateside transfer of All God’s Children Can Dance (2008). However, it is the first film to be adapted from one of Murakami’s major works, partially because directors have felt intimidated about taking on material that has such an ardent following, and partially because Murakami is reportedly reluctant to sign over films rights. Norwegian Wood has elements that make it ideal material for a movie (coming-of-age drama, complicated relationships, 1960s setting), yet the unique nature of Murakami’s prose also poses the challenge of capturing his sense of time and place. Contemplating the post-revolution cultural landscape of 1969 in the novel, Watanabe bemoans, ‘the changes that came were just two-dimensional stage sets, background without substance or meaning.’ Sadly, the same criticism can be leveled at writer-director Anh Hung Tran’s stifling screen adaptation.
Although some events have been excised and relationships simplified, Tran has kept the novel’s main narrative strands intact: In the 1960s, the teenage Watanabe (Kenichi Matsuyama) hangs around with classmate Kizuki (Kengo Kora), who has a serious girlfriend in Naoko (,). Watanabe is a contented ‘third wheel’ until Kizuki commits suicide on his seventeenth birthday, leaving Watanabe and Naoko to console one another, even after they enroll in university. They become closer and consummate their relationship on the night of Naoko’s twentieth birthday, only for Naoko to relocate to a sanatorium shortly thereafter to deal with her deep depression. Through attending classes and hanging around campus, Watanabe meets fellow student Midori (Kiko Mizuhara), the polar opposite of Naoko in that she self-confident and spontaneous. Watanabe alternates between visiting Naoko at a secluded mountain retreat and spending time with Midori, struggling to decide which of these women to fully devote himself to even though they are both unobtainable; Naoko is showing little sign of improvement and is unlikely to be able to leave the sanatorium, while Midori already has a boyfriend. Tran has decided to make Watanabe’s romantic dilemma the narrative focus, but overlooking certain details – Watanabe’s rejection of student rebellion on the grounds that the movement is inherently hypocritical, his refusal to answer when the class register is called – renders the character as little more than an infuriatingly passive lovesick youth. Other characters also suffer from the adaptation treatment; Watanabe’s dormitory friend Nagasawa (Tetsuji Tamayama), charismatic and charming on the page despite his philandering, just comes across as a self-centred jerk, while Midori is perfectly played by newcomer Mizuhara but absent for long stretches as Tran devotes more screen time to the tragic Naoko. This may be due to the casting of Kikuchi – the poster girl for troubled Japanese youth following her performance in Babel (2006) – but the lengthy sanatorium scenes are mournful rather than moving.
Some scenes work reasonably well, such as the first ‘date’ between Watanabe and Midori when she cooks him dinner at her family home. The two students literally circle one another while sharing their views on true love before closing in for a kiss, only for Midori to abruptly halt any romantic development by matter-of-factly uttering, ‘Actually, I have a boyfriend’. However, this is a rare example of Tran applying a light touch, as much of Norwegian Wood shamelessly tugs at the heartstrings since the director adopts a sorrowful tone that largely ignores the subtle humour and ‘pop’ philosophy which are so integral to the Murakami universe. Perhaps the biggest misjudgement, though, is Ping Bin Lee’s cinematography, which is undoubtedly beautiful, but does not allow the characters room to breathe within the confines of his carefully crafted compositions. In this sense, the aesthetic approach of Norwegian Wood recalls Lee’s work on Hirozaku Kore-eda’s uncharacteristically artificial Air Doll (2009), rather than his sensuous Hou Hsiao-hsien collaborations Flowers of Shanghai (1998), Millennium Mambo (2001) and Café Lumière (2005), in that the film looks lovely but is not particularly lively. Although the early scenes of Watanabe reading books in the afternoon, friendships being formed in close dormitory quarters and Watanabe working part-time in a record shop serve to suggest the 1960s student milieu, much of Norwegian Wood still feels studiously unreal, especially in the final third. Tran and Lee pay more attention to swaying grass and falling snow than their principal players, meaning that actors must compete with the elements for attention, not to mention Jonny Greenwood’s over-wrought score. As such, performances become stilted and emotional engagement slips away, with the promise of the film fading like the faux-idealism of the era in which it is set. For those who have read and re-read Murakami’s novel, this screen adaptation of Norwegian Wood will certainly be a heart-breaking experience, but not in the way that Tran presumably intended.