From The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle through to his latest opus, 1Q84, a typical Haruki Murakami novel is a beguiling, sometimes perplexing mix of realism and magic, at once earthbound and flighty.
But his most popular book, Norwegian Wood, is his least typical. Flashing that Beatle song for a title, it’s much more conventional, transparent and accessible, which may explain its huge reception in Japan when first published back in 1987.
For all these reasons, this is the one Murakami work that would seem an ideal candidate for the leap from page to screen. It should be a good movie. But it isn’t.
Instead, Vietnamese director Anh Hung Tran (best known here for The Scent of Green Papaya) has drained the life right out of the novel. Set amid the cultural tumult of the late-‘60s, it’s a standard, if sorrowful, love story, a coming-of-age tale fraught with emotional drama and raw sexual fumblings.
Yet Tran sanitizes the emotions along with the sex, and turns raw into pretty. The result is sumptuously photographed yet strangely evanescent. At 133 minutes, the running time is as long as the impact is short – the film leaves your mind the instant you leave the theatre. It’s not bad so much as innocuous, too bland to make an impression.
That’s surprising because the plot, a series of love triangles, is relentlessly busy. We start with three teenagers, two boys and a girl. In the first frames, Kizuki dies by his own hand, a death that fills his soulmate Naoko (Rinko Kikuchi) and his best friend Watanabe (Kenichi Matsuyama) with an enduring grief. Their response to that tragedy permeates the rest of the narrative – together, and separately, they are both searching for love in the depths of sorrow.
Watanabe forges ahead to Tokyo to continue his studies, participating in the hurly-burly of the era yet only at the margins, from a detached remove.
Later on, he meets Naoko again. Any talk of the past is taboo, but, on her 20th birthday, they have sex at her behest. The encounter (she’s a virgin) ends in a bout of crying, and those tears lead her to a rural retreat, a hospital set among thick woods and lush grasslands.
So begins the gorgeous photography, not to mention a tediously repeated tableau – more encounters, more tears, more silent shots held interminably amid the pretty scenery.
Meanwhile, back in Tokyo, Watanabe meets Naoko’s polar opposite: Midori (Kiko Mizuhara) is outgoing, flirtatious and, despite an ostensible boyfriend, available. So a second triangle forms. There’s a third in the sensual person of Reiko, an older woman who shares a room with Naoko and bears her own psychological scars. In the book, Reiko is a well-developed character crucial to the theme but, here, she’s just a cipher, as evanescent as everything else.
From there, the emotional geometry gets complicated yet never engaging. Although the actors all do their sensitive best, the screenplay robs them of any weight. Their sorrow lacks specific gravity, and their occasional joy has no bounce. Keen to be artsy, Tran has sacrificed hard substance to his mannered style, and the whole picture seems to float away from us.
Admittedly, even at his most conventional, Murakami is a difficult writer to get a handle on – his tone is deceptively simple, delicate in its power. This adaptation captures the delicacy but completely misses the power. The book’s heft is all gone – up on the screen, Norwegian Wood is balsa wood.
Norwegian Wood opens in Toronto on March 2 and Vancouver on March 30, with other Canadian cities to follow.
- Directed and written by Anh Hung Tran
- Starring Kenichi Matsuyama and Rinko Kikuchi
- Classification: NA
- 2 stars