By Lyle Sylvander (Yokohama-shi, 2001-02) for JQ magazine. Lyle is entering a master’s program at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University (MIA 2013) and has been writing for the JET Alumni Association since 2004. He is also the goalkeeper for FC Japan, a New York City-based soccer team.
Haruki Murakami’s novel Norwegian Wood 「ノルウェイの森」 was published in Japan in 1987 and propelled the author to superstar status, especially among the nation’s youth. The novel was also an international success and the first English translation (there were eventually two) introduced Murakami to the U.S.
Unlike his other well-known works, such as Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Norwegian Wood eschews surreal and Kafkaesque sensibilities in favor of a more nostalgically sentimental narrative. It tells the story of love and loss from the vantage point of its 37-year-old protagonist, Toru Watanabe, looking back on his youth as a student during the 1960s.
As in Europe and the U.S., Japan at that time was a society in flux and the establishment was being challenged by idealistic student movements. Against this backdrop, Toru falls in love with the emotionally troubled and fragile Naoko, who sinks into a deep depression after the suicide of their mutual friend Kizuki. She leaves the university for a mountainous sanitarium and during her absence, Toru has a love affair with Midori. Eventually, Naoko succumbs to the darker nature of her illness and commits suicide, sending Toru into an emotional period of bereavement, after which he can commit emotionally to Midori and continue on with his life.
The film version retains Murakami’s plot while dispensing with the flashback framework. Toru (Kenichi Matsuyama) narrates the film from some unspecified point in the future but the story unfolds in real time without the illuminating knowledge that hindsight and age allow. Unfortunately, Toru’s coming-of-age tale lacks emotional depth and one feels that a stronger film could have been made from the novel.
Curiously, the film is written and directed by the French-Vietnamese filmmaker Tran Ahn Hung, most famous for The Scent of Green Papaya (1993). That earlier film was notable for its poetic visuals and subtly contemplative atmosphere—a tradition inherited from modernist European filmmakers that continues today in the work of certain Asian auteurs, such as Thailand’s Apachitpong Weerasthakural.
Hung seems a strange choice for Norwegian Wood and his style is at odds with the emotional undercurrents of the story. Actresses Rinko Kikuchi (Naoko) and Kiko Mizuhara (Midori) perform their roles well but one can almost feel the director’s hand in restraining the full range of emotions in the characters’ roles. Matsuyama’s performance, however, is shallow and distant and often relies on voice-over narration to reveal his inner emotions. Hung’s script is also streamlined and expository, documenting events as they happened without illuminating them.
On the positive side, Hung and his cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bin have shot a beautiful film and make full use of the P2 digital format. Sunsets, snowfalls, oceans and wide expanding forests are all shot with exquisite detail. Hung is also a master of mise-en-scène, constructing his images meticulously and blocking his actors expertly within the frame. The wintertime beauty of the Tonomine highlands in Hyogo prefecture is a sadly haunting visual expression of Naoko’s isolation and loss of life. One only wishes the characters were as compelling as the landscape in which they find themselves.