Movie Review 19: Norwegian Wood

It will come as no surprise to my long time readers that Haruki Murakami is one of my favorite authors. I've reviewed several of his books here over the last several years, including:

When people ask me which Murakami book they should read first, I always suggest Norwegian Wood. It is the most accessible of his novels. It has a reasonably straight forward plot, and the reader sort of know what happens at the end.

It's also strange and dark enough to give the reader an introduction to Murakami, but the plot is not so weird as to scare off the novice.  Plus it still has the beautiful language that is a mainstay of Murakami's work. And it's the only one that lends itself to a movie adaptation.

Last weekend (2011-06-11) the GF and I were lucky enough to catch the US premiere of Tran Ahn Hung's adaptation of Norwegian Wood, part of the SIFF. The UK website is here. The Japanese website is here.

It's a very good movie that does an effective job of capturing the tone of the book.  That means it's a dark, depressing story featuring characters with complex relationships and personal issues.  Since it's been several years since I read the book (it was before I even started this blog) I'd forgotten how the story ended.

The movie is in Japanese with English subtitles.  I was a little concerned about that because the magic of a Murakami novel is in the language and flow of the words.  Would subtitles fail to capture that essence or be too overwhelming? I needn't have worried. The Director opted to minimize the dialog in the film, and communicate Murakami's vision with the visuals.  There's relatively little exposition in the film and it works well.

The scenes that make up the film are snapshots of moments in the characters' lives rather than a continual or even flow from one to another. The director is giving the audience a lot of credit for following the story.  It moves forward in sections, and relies on the viewers to fill in the blanks.  Scenes jump, rather than transition, and it works well in this film.

Also striking is how the director used music. In most American films, it seems there is always music in the background, reinforcing the action and further building the tone.  In Norwegian Wood, the director takes the opposite approach.  He minimizes the music and let's a silent background or one of relevant environmental noise carry the scene. The audience hears almost as much water in the movie as it does music -- water in the form of crashing waves, rain pouring down, babbling streams, or bathroom vanities.

In some respects minimizing the music seems a little odd, since one of the selling points of the film is that the soundtrack was created by Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood.  I'm not sure if this is common in foreign films, but it was certainly interesting to see and not hear, well, here.

The book and the film take place against the backdrop of student protests in Tokyo in the 60s.  While the protests do make their appearance in the film, I don't get the sense that they really needed to be here. Their influence on the main character is more pronounced in the book, but in the film, they almost feel irrelevant. The story feels like it could have taken place in 1985 as easily as it did in 1967. Placing the film in the 60s gave the director the opportunity to costume the actors in period appropriate garb, and to not use cell phones, but didn't feel like it impacted the core of the movie.

Those familiar with the book, may be wondering about the main character's roommate, whom he refers to as the Stormtrooper because of his intense, eccentric ways. He had a couple of appearances in the movie, but not many. It's too bad, because when he does appear, he's really funny. The flag raising ceremonies that also are a feature of the book are mostly left out, too.

It's too bad because those characters, and the deeper discussion of the protests help to reinforce the narrator's own sense of alienation and make it easier for the reader to go on the journey he pursues.  At the same, time, though, it could be that much of that material is better suited for the internal monologue of a book than for the more visual movie. After all, it's not those scenes that make a difference in the book; it's how the narrator reacts to them and feels about them. I can't really fault the film for that, but if you are looking for more of those aspects in the film, you may be disappointed.

The writers do a good job with the lost and generally damaged Naoko. Rinko Kikuchi plays the role well. She plays the delicate and at times dramatic character in a restrained way.  Kiko Mizuhara captures the confidence of Midori, but the script seems to cheat her a bit.  The character lacks the depth of Naoko in the film and as a result, it's more challenging to relate to the tension Ken'ichi Matsuyama's Toru Watanabe feels as he tries to navigate his and the two women's feelings.  Matsuyama himself plays Watanabe as confused and struggling to do what's right as he feels alone no matter what he does.  He seems to do an effective job with the role.

If you are not familiar with the story, know that it is not a happy one.  It's dark and strange. It explores the issues of alienation, grief, regret, depression, and suicide. There are extensive, frank discussions of sexuality.

That said, it is a very good movie.  It's reasonably faithful to the book and is and interesting alternative to the style I've come to expect from US movies. It's is beautifully shot, well acted, and a joy to listen to. It had treats for the eyes, the ears, the brain, and the heart.

But perhaps it's not the best choice for a first date.