Often cited as an un-filmable classic, Haruki Murakami’s much loved bestselling novel, Norwegian Wood, is now available to buy on DVD after a director was finally found who was willing to accept the challenge and adapt this poisoned ‘paperback’ chalice. Anh Hung Tran’s film provoked predictable whispers of discontent from Murakami’s considerable fan base upon its theatrical release but do the film’s fortunes any better now the critical dust has settled or will its purported inability to convey the book’s deeply emotional subtext condemn it to the same cinematic wastelands as other failed adaptations of celebrated literary works?
Set amongst all the social unrest, demonstrations and vandalism which occurred during the student riots of 1960s Tokyo, we join Watanabe (Ken’ichi Matsuyama), an undergraduate who despite his calm and peaceful exterior has an internal conflict gnawing away at his conscious. His heightened depression shares the same degree of amalgamated frustration and anger as the disenfranchised protestors causing chaos outside of his isolated existence, yet unlike his contemporaries, he seems unable to physically express himself in any noticeable way other than through his sullen appearance and self-imposed solitude.
He’s haunted by his past, which was devastated by a singular tragic incident. The suicide of his closest friend, whilst enough to affect any young man’s life, has left him emotionally tied to Naoko (Rinko Kikuchi), the deceased boy’s then girlfriend who, even numerous years after that fateful day, is still very much a fragile and troubled girl who never fully recovered from the death of her childhood sweetheart and the feelings of rejection which came with it.
The arrival of Midori (Kiko Mizuhara), a fun loving and free spirited university student, only exacerbates Watanabe’s complicated attachment to Naoko and leaves him with a moral decision to make as to whether he should continue to let this dependant relationship with Naoko stand in the way of a future with Midori. Either answer will undoubtedly result in some degree of heartbreak, but will Watanabe’s inner struggle afford him the courage to make such an emotionally monumental decision, or will he continue to torment himself with these feelings of guilt and misery?
As adaptations go, Norwegian Wood is surely one of the most difficult to attempt. The story is almost entirely told through 30-year-old Watanabe’s flashbacks, extended memories and internal monologue – a narrative technique that’s understandably difficult to convey on film whilst also maintaining an immersive sense of reality.
Tran’s translation of this multi-layered, poetic love story may well fail to capture the true extent of the characters’ existential struggles, but a film should always be able to stand alone and not purely be judged on the original source material which inspired it. Accurately recreating a novel is no mean feat, cuts need to be made to condense the story into an easily manageable format which encapsulates the feel of a story, a near impossible task as inevitably each reader has their own personal interpretations. However, Norwegian Wood’s failing is not how dismissive it is to the source material but rather how hard it strives to literally recreate the prose word for word.
The skilful cinematography of Mark Lee Ping Bin uses the strikingly beautiful Japanese countryside to create a dreamlike backdrop of intoxicating visual splendour, which only becomes amplified the instant Tan’s good looking cast become gloriously framed within it. There is little doubt that this painterly presented, hypnotic and visually alluring interpretation of Norwegian Wood is a cinematic equivalent of photographic art – like twenty four painstakingly hand drawn masterpieces being rushed in front of our eyes every second. Combine this with Johnny Greenwood’s captivating score and you have a technically accomplished piece of filmmaking which could easily be presented at any film art college as an example of how to use the medium to create something far removed from the drudgery of television or the formulaic approach of Hollywood.
However, a film must rely on more than just its ability to titillate the senses and also manage to affect us in deeper, less superficial ways. This introspective romance relies heavily on its sublime visuals to portray the emotions of its cast. It’s not to say the acting is poor (at times, it’s very accomplished), but rather a reflection of how the film has been far too strict with its use of dialogue, stripping the minimal conversational pieces out of the original book and failing to add anything else which may have helped communicate the film’s more subtle and personal moments.
Such a deceptively simple story really isn’t suited to a film which lasts over two hours. As a piece of literature, Norwegian Wood’s emotional story works perfectly. Each time the reader picks up the book, they feel like they’re following a diary of a man’s downward spiral into depression on a day by day basis. Some painful yet necessary cuts to the script would no doubt prevent the film from straying towards monotony. The frame narrative of Watanabe’s relationship with his wayward friend Kizuki (Kengo Kora), despite adding a comforting rest bite to an otherwise depressing story, could easily have been removed and acts as a prime example of where sacrifices could have been made. At the expense of the audience members unfamiliar with the book, Norwegian Wood’s attempts to appease its loyal fans has not just alienated those new to its desolate love story but, at the same time, angered those who hold its tenderly heartbreaking tale so close to their hearts.
Whilst this sumptuously bleak love story should rightly be heralded as a technically assured piece of filmmaking, its striking prominent visuals can only hold your attention for so long and the film’s repetitive and subdued approach will ultimately test the patience of even the most dedicated of art house fans. Perhaps not fully deserving of the clichéd responses from some critics who heralded it as a case in point for ‘style over substance’, the film’s atmosphere of resigned sadness and its melancholy facade of emotional numbness does become quite contagious towards the end.