Jarv gets stomped on by Norwegian Wood.
Well, I’ve got nobody to blame but myself for this one. Given that I love Haruki Murakami’s novel, and that I’ve read it many times, I should really have been expecting the soul-scouring experience of Norwegian Wood on the big screen. Still, nevertheless, it did somewhat catch me off guard, in that I was preparing for it to be bleak, but Christ did I underestimate how bleak they’d go with it. So, am I glad I saw it? Well, yes, but it falls into the category of film that I want to like rather more than I do like it.
Norwegian Wood the novel opens with a prologue explaining that what we are about to read is Watanabe’s memory of the defining events of his life. The film dispenses with this and just plunges us straight into the action. Watanabe, Naoko, and Kitsuki are an inseparable threesome. Kitsuki and Naoko are a couple and Watanabe is the fifth wheel. This all changes with Kitsuki’s suicide (an absolutely harrowing scene). Watanabe is left shattered by this, and moves to Tokyo to pursue a life of nihilistic womanising and occasional study. Naoko also moves to Tokyo, and through a sense of misguided duty (and understandable teenage lust) he hooks up with her. Unfortunately, Watanabe has severely underestimated how damaged Naoko is, and once Midori enters the picture in Tokyo the film spirals into an orgy of suicide and depression.
First up, this is a clever adaptation. Murakami’s masterpiece contains a huge amount of cultural detail, and side plots that distract from the central story. Here, almost all of them are excised to focus on the triangle of misery that serves as the film’s emotional core. With one exception, this is mostly a good idea- although I do also wish that Nagasawa and his girlfriend had also been cut loose. There’s only so much misery you can take. The exception, actually, is the short shrift that Storm Trooper gets. He provides much needed levity in the novel, and this proves to be a serious problem with the film. Nevertheless, paring down the side stories works very effectively in keeping the film focused.
Norwegian Wood is a stunning looking film. The cinematography is fantastic and there are two moments in particular that have stayed with me since I left the cinema. The first is a minor tracking scene following Watanabe pushing through a crowd of student protesters. This is so well shot that it feels fully immersive and works on a character level to make Watanabe stand out from his contemporaries: he’s literally the only one walking against the tide, and the only one not dressed in a blue helmet. The second is truly stunning. Watanabe receives an invite from Naoko to visit her near Kyoto. He’s ecstatic to receive this and the camera spins following him up the stairs, until a swift cut has the camera panning across the lush Japanese countryside. It’s a really incredible piece of shot composition and editing, and it must be because I very rarely notice these aspects in a film.
The acting is across the board fantastic. Watanabe is a cypher, as he is in the novel, and as such this is a damned hard role to play. Kenichi Matsuyama manages it with aplomb, his only real howler being the crying scene late in the film, but he’s well in the black in the credit stakes by then. Nevertheless, the real star of the piece is Rinko Kikuchi as Naoko, a beautiful and damaged presence that is the very embodiment of vulnerability on screen. Props also go to Reika Kirishima as Reiko, and more importantly Kiko Mizuhara as Midori, who manages to make the best of a completely butchered part.
This, unfortunately, is where the problems with the film start. Midori serves a very serious purpose in the novel- she’s the polar opposite of Naoko, a vivacious woman that provides the living, breathing alternative to Watanabe. Here, however, with a few notable exceptions, they gutted the role. Midori is given her fair share of misery porn and barring a few scenes (her introduction is spectacular) seems to be carrying the same burden that the other characters are. It’s a pity, actually, because the levity and lust for life supplied by Midori is utterly essential to counterbalance the psychological problems of Naoko and the relentless slide towards suicide. Without Midori as a vital presence in the film, the atmosphere is too skewed towards misery, and there’s only so much depression that you can take.
The other problem, and although it is a minor one it is incredibly jarring, is that whoever did the score/ soundtrack has absolutely no idea whatsoever about how to use music in a film. There’s one particular usage that really exemplifies what’s going wrong: towards the end of the film, a 60’s song is played (one that I don’t recognise). We hear the intro of it, and then Watanabe answers the phone and the song gets cut off dead. It, actually, damages the moment, and it isn’t the only example of this in the film.
Overall, I am glad I saw this, but I’m not sure if I really recommend it. I’m writing this review very fresh, so I’m sure my opinion of it will change with a bit more thought. In the meantime, however, I’m going to be generous and give it three Changs out of four (mostly because it is a film that I really want to like), but on the explicit understanding that Norwegian Wood is relentless in piling on the misery, being one of the most depressing movies that I’ve seen in a while. I cautiously recommend this one, but I do warn you that it is a very difficult film to watch. Nevertheless, Norwegian Wood is cinematically stunning, and if you are feeling brave, give it a whirl- even if there aren’t a lot of chuckles in it.
Until next time,