Director - Anh Hung Tran
Rating - 4/5
A beautiful dream-like interpretation of Murakami's novel.
Like the Japanese translation of the Beatles song itself (Norwegian Forest, rather than wood) this adaptation of Murakami's best-selling novel is just a little askew. It makes up for this by being a sumptuously shot, dream of a film.
The story is deceptively simple. Toru, Naoko and her boyfriend Kizuki are best friends in their high school days in the '70s. Everything seems perfect, except of course everything is not perfect. Without warning, Kizuki sits in his car in a garage with a pipe attached to the exhaust, and turns on the ignition killing himself. The story picks up again 3 years later with Toru now a university student in Tokyo. The student riots are going all around but they always feel peripheral to the story. He bumps into Naoko in a park and they reignite their friendship, which eventually becomes something more. This is too much for the fragile Naoko. She heads to a retreat for depression, isolated in the Kyoto mountains. Toru meets Midori, playful and lively, she is the the opposite of shy Naoko, and finds himself trapped between the past and the future. The deviation from the books narrative is minimal and anyone who has read it will feel immediately familiar.
The book was of a man reflecting from his 30s, scouring his memories. Whilst this flashback element is not really here, apart from Toru's occasional voice-over. The film does manage to recreate this through its airy style though, making the whole film feel like an extended memory. It struck me at times as sharing some parallels with Wong Kar Wai's 2046, visually and thematically, the scene from the back of the cab seems like a direct homage. Unfortunately, the actors don't strike you as Murakami creations at times. Kenichi Matsuyama is handsome and does a good job, but the Toru from the pages doesn't really leap out of him. This is perhaps unfair criticism, as a lot of Toru's characterization was achieved through the access to his inner thoughts as narrator of the book, but there is a notable paring down of all the characters. Rinko Kikuchi, here as Naoko and familiar from Babel, applies herself well to the role. She seems ethereal, adding to this otherly effect by spending half the movie in the clouds of the mountaintop retreat. The three main stars, with Kiko Mizuhara as Midori, are maybe a little too picture perfect for this film but overall they contribute solid performances.
Anh Hung Tran's direction is great and the film is really beautiful from start to finish. The shots of Toru and Naoko in the mountain are spell-binding. Those scenes are translated perfectly into film. He envelops Naoko and Toru in the nature surrounding them, losing them in it. The essence of the seasons, snowy mountains, autumnal hues, are distilled into the film serving as a timescale and a metaphor for the story.His focus on nature, the extreme close ups of the plants are stunning, make for some brilliant imagery.
Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood's score is pitch perfect. It briefly seems at odds, it's the last thing you expect, but very quickly makes a great deal of sense. As in There Will Be Blood it is never merely background music, but something that bears almost the same influence as the camera itself. He imbues a foreboding dread, lacing otherwise innocuous scenes with the feeling of something toxic. There are even sequences reminiscent of Anderson's masterpiece, as the mountainous ranges of Japan are captured just as the desolate wilderness of America's hunt for oil was. The occasional music tracks, apart from the titular Beatles one, comes from krautrock band Can. All well chosen and appropriately used they, along with the immaculate attention to the period detail on screen in the sets and costumes, let the '70s ooze out of the screen.
The film does have moments where it lapses. The acting is a little in patches. One scene where Toru is crying and drooling (literally) in anguish on the rocks is a bit too much. There should be more trust placed in the audience. His turmoil is apparent, he is sleeping in a rock cave, it doesn't need to be overplayed like this. The film is a bit slow in getting running, though it seems to grow with confidence as the story progresses. A couple of the big scenes, like where Reiko, Naoko's confidante, sings Norwegian Wood don't quite come off as perhaps intended, but are in the minority.
Flawed definitely, but an exceptional film. For any Murakami fans complaining about the legitimacy of this as an adaptation, I urge you to cast your memory back to the forgotten Tony Takitani. That was a film, largely ignored, that truly, in every essence, adhered to the Murakami style and atmosphere. Norwegian Wood is more of a compromise but an entirely valid one. At the end Midori asks Toru where he is. He can't answer, unsure like the feeling of waking up from a dream. Norwegian Wood is a film that is hard to hold onto, but lingers with you, a meandering dream-scape of sorrow.