Norwegian Wood

October 29, 2011
Film still, Norwegian Wood
Film still, Norwegian Wood

Norwegian Wood will do nothing to dispell the popular preconception that Japanese films are obsessed with sex and death. It is a long, slow, intense story about a young student, Watanabe (Ken’ichi Matsuyama), and his relationship with a disturbed girl, Naoko (Rinko Kikuchi – the schoolgirl from Babel). It is a tale saturated in melancholy, but without a moment’s sentimentality.

In the way it examines the fraught relationships between characters, Norwegian Wood is the tragic counterpart to Mike Mills’s Beginners, another film this year that explored sex, death and grief. But where Beginners was full of comedy, Norwegian Wood is bleak. It will not be to everyone’s taste, although there will be many who declare it a masterpiece. As I discover how hard it is to get this haunting film out of one’s mind, I’m inclining to the latter view.

The movie is based on Haruki Murakami’s eponymous best-seller of 1987 – a sensation when it first appeared, partly because the style of writing was so different to the usual Japanese novel; partly because of its unique packaging: a box which contained a pair of small books in red and green. This format was duplicated by Harvill when they published the English-language translation in 2000.

None of this would have mattered if Murakami had not captured his readers’ emotions with a fractured, highly original love story. On first impressions Murakami may seem a frivolous writer, but keep reading and one discovers a craftsman of immense ability. Perhaps his name came up when the Nobel Prize committee were deciding to hand this year’s award to a relatively obscure Swedish poet.

It was long believed to be too difficult to translate Norwegian Wood into a movie, but Murakami found his match in the Vietnamese director, Anh Hung Tran, known for a handful of remarkable films including The Scent of Green Papaya (1993), and Cyclo (1995).

Tran is a master of atmosphere and detail. Like Antonioni or Tarkovsky, he takes his time to tell a story, letting us soak up the scenery and become intimately acquainted with the characters. When he wants to make a point he can hold a shot for long time. The most visually impressive aspect of the film is its dramatic approach to nature, created by cinematographer, Lee Ping Bin: swaying fields of long, green grass; rocky outcrops by the sea; dense forests; stark and beautiful vistas of a snow-covered landscape. Each setting acts as a metaphor for a state of mind.

In the urban scenes the characters are terminally stylish, with their creamy complexions, sharp haircuts and fashions. Only their thoughts are dark. “I just don’t go out of my way to make friends,” says Watanabe, “it only leads to disappointment.”

The film is also notable for an unusual but effective soundtrack by Jonny Greenwood, the classically-trained lead guitarist for the band, Radiohead. It includes music by string quartet; the German arthouse band, Can, (who enjoy a lingering popularity in Japan); and Greenwood’s own twanged, discordant additions. It is an audacious mix that stops and starts with the abruptness of a plug being pulled. During the scenes of greatest emotional intensity the music becomes a wall of sound. This is startlingly different from the usual movie soundtrack that creeps along subliminally in the background.

The story is set in the 1960s, during an era of student unrest in Tokyo. There are at least two main strands – Watanabe’s love for Naoko, which is emotionally bound up with memories of Kizuki, a mutual friend who committed suicide at the age of seventeen. Then there is Midori (Kiko Mizuhara) – the “green” segment of the novel – who plays cat and mouse with Watababe while he works through his feelings for Naoko, and the casual sexual liaisons into which he is led by his suave, cold-hearted friend, Nagasawa (Tetsuji Tamayama).

The final notable character is Reiko (Reika Kirishima), an older woman who befriends and cares for Naoko in a mountainous retreat near Kyoto. When Watanabe visits Naoko, who is developing signs of schizophrenia, Reiko makes up the third part of the triangle – the role played by Kizuki during their schooldays. She also strums a guitar and sings a rather shrill version of the title song.

Norwegian Wood is ultimately more of a tone poem than a narrative, and most of the drama revolves around sex. There is the single episode of love-making between Watanabe and Naoko that drives their passion for the rest of the film. There are Midori’s sexual fantasies, narrated in public places. There is Nagasawa’s callous treatment of his girlfriend, Hatsumi, who accepts his relentless womanising.

Without showing so much as a nipple, Tran extracts an incredible sensual power from these scenes. He suggests that sex can be the most intense expression of love, but  love and sex may not be natural companions. Perhaps love may be bound up with feelings of guilt or anger rather than simple attraction. Perhaps it is the fear of death and pain that drives us to look for love and reject it when it appears.

Published by the Australian Financial Review, October 29, 2011

Japan. Rated MA, 133 minutes.