Norwegian Wood

Norwegian Wood is a film by Tran Anh Hung, a Frenchman born in Vietnam, based upon the novel of the same name by Haruki Murakami. I’ve been told that this was the biggest selling novel in Japan during the twentieth century.

The film is set in Tokyo in the 1960’s. Watanabe (Ken’ichi Matsuyama), a high school student, is friends with Kizuki (Kengo Kora) and with Kizuki’s girlfriend, Naoko (Rinko Kikuchi). One day, Kizuki kills himself without any explanation. Watanabe and Naoko are shocked by his death. Watanabe goes to a university and tries to forget his grief by burying himself in his studies. The school he is attending is being wracked by student demonstrations, but Watanabe refuses to get involved. One day he runs into Naoko. They begin seeing each other. On Naoko’s twentieth birthday, they make love. After that, however, Naoko disappears. Watanabe looks for her. He eventually learns that she has had a mental breakdown. She is now living in a sanitarium in a remote area. He goes to visit her, and he meets her roommate, Reiko (Reika Kirishima), a freindly but somewhat strange woman.

Naoko clearly has conflicted feelings towards Watanabe. At times, she is welcoming towards him, but at other times she tells him to go away. Her favorite song is the Beatles’ Norwegian Wood, which is about a one-night stand that ends badly. The song speaks to her fear of emotional commitment. Clearly, she is still traumatized by the death of Kizuki. Watanabe can’t forget Kizuki either. He insists on asking Naoko intimate questions about her relationship with him.

Back in Tokyo, Watanabe becomes involved with Midori (Kiko Mizuhara), a brash, outspoken woman who is in many ways Watanabe’s opposite. He also becomes friends with the womanizing Nagasawa (Tetsuji Tamayama) and with his long-suffering girlfriend, Hatsumi (Eriko Hatsune). Midori wants Watanabe to commit himself to her, but he can’t bring himself to let go of Naoko.

The student demonstrations figure prominently in some of the early scenes. This led me to believe that they would play an important role in the story, but they don’t. I haven’t read the Murakami novel on which this film is based, but the friend that I saw it with has. She told that in the book the demonstrators are portrayed in a highly critical manner. She also told me that some of the minor characters are more fleshed out in the novel than in the movie. I can only guess that Tran wanted to focus on Watanabe’s relationships with Naoko and with Midori. I think the film might have been more interesting if it showed the story’s political context. Surely, that must have been important to Murakami if he included it in the novel.

Even so, Norwegian Wood is a beautifully made and subtly erotic film. The music editor, Jonny Greenwood, has put together a soundtrack that perfectly complements the film and skillfully sets the mood for each scene.

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