A heavy, haunting coming-of-age tale
By Stephanie Merry
Friday, Jan. 6, 2012
For a story packed with big, indelible events - suicide and sexual awakening, terminal illness and first love - "Norwegian Wood" is a restrained portrait of liminal moments, a coming-of-age tale that feels more like a moody ghost story than a neatly contained chronicle of beginnings.
The adaptation of Haruki Murakami's 1987 novel follows Toru Watanabe (Ken'ichi Matsu-yama), a college kid who moves to Tokyo in the late 1960s to escape the suffocating sadness of best friend Kizuki's inexplicable suicide.
But peace is short-lived.
Kizuki's longtime girlfriend, Naoko (Rinko Kikuchi), emerges from the ether, a lovely but lost figure haunted by the past. While the pair spend an increasing amount of time together - long afternoons of shared silence - two broken spirits seem only more damaged by proximity. And after a romantic encounter on her 20th birthday, Naoko commits herself to a bucolic institution outside Kyoto.
Separately, both characters attempt to move beyond the past's long shadow. Watanabe embraces school, parties with friends and meets Midori (Kiko Mizuhara), the sunny foil to Naoko's depressive specter. Yet Watanabe continues to correspond with and visit Naoko, despite his stays being fraught and unfulfilling walks down memory lane. What might have been a look at the woozy experience of first love instead becomes a lament of innocence lost too young.
It's no secret that adapting a novel for the big screen is tricky business, between the book's purists, poised to pounce at gratuitous liberties, and those viewers who have never picked up Murakami's much-translated source material.
Considering the relatively long 133-minute run time, some elements of the tale feel superficial, perhaps in favor of including every storyline. An interlude with one of Watanabe's womanizing friends, for example, seems a plot point that adds little to the overall effect.
But Oscar nominee Tran Anh Hung's adaptation excels at ambience with an otherworldly melancholy that saturates each scene. When Watanabe and Naoko pace aimlessly through a foggy field, their white-clad figures cut through the scenery like agitated phantoms. Naoko's unwelcome birthday, meanwhile, is an evening bathed in blue light that can't be salvaged - or brightened - by the sweet luminescence of birthday cake. The overall effect is bolstered by the music, including the song that gives the novel and film its title; in a particularly wrenching scene, a rendition of the Beatles song sends Naoko into one of her bleak episodes. The rest of the score feels like a seamless extension of that song thanks to music by Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood.
Even the final scene feels like a moment on the verge of something else, rather than a tidy ending. It's a story about thresholds, with kids on the brink of adulthood trying to experience life so close to death. At times, the story seems to exist in the instant between wakefulness and sleep, a dreamy state that's also startlingly realistic.
Contains sexual situations, explicit discussion of sex and suicide. In Japanese with English subtitles.