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As all supposedly unfilmable novels inevitably seem to, a cinematic Murakami Haruki’s “Norwegian Wood” finally arrived in 2010, some 23 years after its original publication. Given the book’s incredible popularity, it’s perhaps somewhat of a mystery why no-one decided to take up the challenge before, though the wait seemed to have been worthwhile when it was announced that Vietnamese director Tran Anh Hung (“Scent of the Green Papaya”) would be the brave soul in question, along with acclaimed Taiwanese cinematographer Lee Ping Bin (“In the Mood For Love”). Despite the obvious narrative difficulties faced by Tran, Murakami himself gave his seal of approval, and apparently stepped in to advise on the script, giving the film a major official boost. With a fine cast of young Japanese talent, headed by Matsuyama Kenichi (“Death Note”), Kikuchi Rinko (“Babel”) and model Mizuhara Kiko as the iconic protagonists, the film unsurprisingly enjoyed a high profile run at international festivals, playing in competition at Venice and screening at various other events around the world.
The film’s plot is a pretty faithful adaptation of the novel, taking place in 1960s Japan and beginning with a young man called Watanabe (Matsuyama Kenichi) heading to Tokyo to attend university and get over the suicide of his childhood best friend Kizuki. While there, he meets Kizuki’s girlfriend Naoko (Kikuchi Rinko), and ends up spending the night with her. Unfortunately, this seems to bring back painful memories for the tortured, unstable girl, and she checks herself into a remote forest sanatorium. Although Watanabe still attempts to build a relationship with Naoko, he also finds himself involved with his lively classmate Midori (Mizuhara Kiko), pushing him towards a life altering choice.
Although bringing “Norwegian Wood” or indeed any of Murakami Haruki’s works to the screen was always going to be a difficult prospect, it’s hard to imagine a more fitting choice of director than Tran Anh Hung. The Vietnamese helmer’s languid, atmospheric style fits the novel perfectly, managing to nail the bittersweet nostalgia and quiet emotional turmoil far effectively more than might have been expected. As with most of Tran’s efforts, the film primarily has the feel of a mood piece, driven by ambiguity and atmosphere rather than narrative. This approach works very well indeed, and whilst the film inevitably does lose some of the book’s details and richness, it’s impressive just how much of it Tran is able to faithfully retain, especially given its relatively short running time.
To a large extent this is down to some truly gorgeous visuals, which not only bring the book to captivating life, but which are used skilfully to reflect its themes, primarily the conflict in Watanabe’s heart that finds him longing for the painful past whilst reaching for a brighter future, symbolised by the two women in his life. Boasting a wholly convincing recreation of the time period, the film switches between vivid colours and pale, bleak compositions during the later stages as Naoko’s condition worsens. Cinematographer Lee Ping Bin is on top form, and the film does bear comparison with “In the Mood for Love”, showing the same kind of melancholic beauty and eye for detail. Through this, Tran is able to successfully evoke an impression of fading memories, the confusion of love, and the ominous presence of death. The soundtrack also plays a vital role in this, with Greenwood’s superb ambient score perfectly complimenting the drama.
Given the popularity of the book, the casting was always going to be a key factor. Thankfully, Matsuyama Kenichi does a very serviceable job as the male lead, just about managing to convey inner turmoil and complexity whilst still remaining sympathetic. Although Mizuhara Kiko doesn’t have a great deal to do as Midori, with her character being the one most significantly trimmed, Kikuchi Rinko is excellent as Naoko, arguably the film’s most important role. As a result, the film does carry a considerable emotional punch, though it’s a little too distant and cold to have quite the same impact as Haruki’s multi-layered novel.
Still, this would perhaps have been a little too much to ask for, and “Norwegian Wood” is certainly the very best adaptation of the book possible. Tran Anh Hung proves to have been an inspired choice of director, and backed by some amazing visuals and laudable efforts from the cast as a whole, the film is by far one of the more complex and mature relationship dramas of recent years, and one which should be enjoyed by Haruki fans and newcomers alike.
Anh Hung Tran (director) / Haruki Murakami (based upon the novel), Anh Hung Tran (screenplay)
CAST: Rinko Kikuchi … Naoko
Ken’ichi Matsuyama … Toru Watanabe
Kiko Mizuhara … Midori
Tetsuji Tamayama … Nagasawa
Kengo Kôra … Kizuki
Reika Kirishima … Reiko Ishida
Eriko Hatsune … Hatsumi