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Norwegian Wood (2011) April 3, 2011

Posted by ayasawada in Books, Film.
Tags: , , , ,

It is, in many ways, the impossible adaptation. The popularity of his novels makes it surprising that there has been just one ‘Murakami’ film before. The fact that the plots often feature the oddly supernatural, or not very much actually happening, makes it less surprising. Yet, as Jun Ichikawa’s Tony Takitani showed, capturing the essence of what makes the novels means capturing the inner-monologue, the feeling that drives the story, is what’s most important.

A friend said to me once that Tony Takitani was the “most beautifully pointless film” she’d ever seen. Slow-moving, but gorgeously filmed, and full of emotion (at least that that readers of the original short story would have interpreted), its point was perhaps lost on those who fell asleep during the snail’s pace.

So what of Norwegian Wood, the most eagerly awaited of Murakami adaptations? It is, in many ways, as faithful an adaptation as we might get —  like Ichikawa, director Tran Anh Hung captures perfectly the incredible feel of a Murakami novel. The whole thing is like a crisp, gorgeous dream, every scene dripping with angst and emotion. That it’s as slow as Tony Takitani perhaps again shows its faithfulness to the source material.

(SPOILERS AHEAD and some of this might not make sense to those who haven’t read the novel)

What a good adaptation does, is make you see things in a different light – what’s interesting about an adaptation is what’s left out and what’s included, what’s selected and why.

One of the most profound lines in the novel is Nagasawa’s advice to Watanabe: “Don’t feel sorry for yourself, only assholes do that”. I’d never considered this before, but the difference between the characters is how much they relate to this line. Kizuki and Naoko, for example do feel sorry for themselves, which eventually drives them to suicide. Watanabe and Midori, on the other hand, don’t. They choose to live and it’s for them that the bright future beckons.

The Midori played by Mizuhara Kiko is very much a different Midori to the one I knew (myself committing that common sin of comparing the filmmakers interpretation to the one in my, the reader’s, imagination). In my mind, Midori is a shining light in Norwegian Wood, bold but charming (very charming), as troubled as any of the others but always looking forward. What overwhelmed me in the film though was her incredible selfishness. When she spurns Watanabe’s attempted apology, she’s much more horrible than I remembered from my reading. But in watching the film, I came to realise this selfishness was another part of her resolve to get on with life, to not let sadness and moping get in her way.

The Watanabe of Kenichi Matsuyama was, however, pretty much spot on. The passivity of the character (indeed, of any Murakami protagonist) really shines through. What struck me most was how Watanabe makes no choices at all — everything that happens is the result of options being taken away from him. Even his resolution with Midori seems more the result of Naoko’s suicide rather than his decision to pick the other girl. Hung’s decisions really emphasise that — he makes Naoko’s suicide quick (interestingly, even though he stretched Kizuki’s out) and focuses instead on the grieving and the aftermath. It makes the Rieko sex scene more prominent, and poignant (mystifyingly so in a way, as she hadn’t really had much of a part in the film), and this, in some ways somewhat sadly, takes away from the romantic, happy ending I feel you get from the book. Sleeping with Rieko makes more sense in the book, as you learn more of her history. The sex between Watanabe and her is the completing of a circle, in a way like that of Naoko and Watanabe was following the death of Kizuki. Having said that, when Watanabe and Rieko get it on it feels almost throwaway in the novel, but Hung uses it differently for his work.

Other things, however, are lost. Like the strong sense of history initially set up by the background of student riots and 60s fashion and music. There isn’t the time to steep yourself in the feeling of revolution and change as there is when reading the novel, so when the story progresses to the lonely focus on just a handful of people, you almost forget what the historical aspect has to do with their thinking.

Also lost is the real significance of the song ‘Norwegian Wood’. Rieko plays it at the retreat (at least allowing us to hear the significance of the lyrics to the story), but that’s about it. We don’t actually see that that’s what Watanabe bought for Naoko’s birthday (she never actually opens the gift). Nor, as another friend very astutely pointed out to me, do we get the true significance of that Proustian opening in the book, which is cut for the film. I used to think of it as just a device, an homage to Proust. My friend wisely said that what that scene does is frame the story as something that very much happened in the past, a one year fixed period — again, linked to a very significant point in history. When you know that Watanabe is recalling all this nostalgiawhile sitting on a plane as a grown man, you know that he’s moved on with his life, has lived on without ending it like his two best friends, and has possibly even found happiness. Without this part, the story is much more open-ended, much less personal (at least, to Watanabe).

That is a shame, but it kind of balances out with all the positive, interesting things that I’ve pointed out above. And I really can’t emphasise how incredibly beautiful this film is. The cinematography is fabulous, the soundtrack is a dream and the performances of the cast are great. Sure, it has its bad moments — an overindulgence in long ‘arthouse emotional’ scenes (you’ll know what I’m talking about) for one — but there are real gems there too. Although I may not have totally liked Hung’s version of Midori, the scene where she debuts is really magical.

So, did I like it? Yes. I didn’t love it — and I went in really wanting to — but I was mostly satisfied and with new questions and appreciation of a story I, like many fans, am perhaps overly attached to. And it does that which is most important to a Murakami: capturing the essence of what makes the novels, the feeling that drives the story.



1. sumiremei - April 5, 2011

You’ve written a wonderful review here – I totally agree for the most part with everything you’ve said about the film. Highly observant.

ayasawada - April 5, 2011

Thank you very much! The more I think about it, the more the film’s made the novel more interesting for me. I’m looking forward to seeing it again, and reading it again.

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