Friday, March 11, 2011

Review: Norwegian Wood

Remember it forever?

This review is dedicated to the Japanese people who lost their life in yesterday's earthquake and tsunami.

Watanabe and Naoko
The claims that a particular novel are 'unfilmable' have proven incorrect so many times that the word has almost come to lose all meaning. Of course you can argue - and I could argue - how well the likes of Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas or Watchmen - hell, even Ulysses - have been adapted, but there are films out there bearing the same name and at least somewhat resembling the authors' original visions. When it comes to Haruki Murakami novels, though, the old cliche rings truer. In the more surreal of his works - particularly his masterpieces Kafka on the Shore and The Wind Up Bird Chronicle - the content is so hypnotic and stylistic on the page that it would be almost impossible to put it on the screen with any sort of competence. They are books where it's almost impossible to explain to others what happens in the dream worlds they conjure up, let alone cinematically capture the image of a whiskey mascot feeding on the entrails of the cats he has just ripped open - makes sense in context, I swear. They, quite frankly, need to stay on the page, and any attempts to do justice to his unique, dreamlike vision could only meet in failure (until, of course, some super talented film-maker comes along and proves me wrong).

Not so with Norwegian Wood, easily the most 'traditional' of his novels. The question here isn't why it hadn't been adapted yet, but why not? After all, the book was a particularly rousing success story in Nippon, with Murakami himself particularly bemused at the book's popularity after it was released in 1987. The young Japanese fans would even dress in specific colours depending on whether they were Naoko or Midori fans, the two female love interests of the novel. Given the book's endless popularity in Japan, it's genuinely surprising the novel hadn't gotten the big screen treatment sooner. Personally, I only heard about the adaptation while visiting Japan late last year. I just missed the release date, but I wouldn't have understood it anyway. I very literally bought the t-shirt though. Luckily, I didn't have to wait too long for an English release.

Anyway: here we are, almost twenty five years after the book's release, and French / Vietnamese director Trần Anh Hùng has become the director to tackle the novel. At a basic level, Norwegian Wood is a coming-of-age / love triangle story (of sorts, a bit more complicated than that), the main strengths of the novel being a strong sense of honesty, nostalgia and regret: themes and feelings usually absent from trite tales of young adult romance. The protagonist is Toru Watanabe, a college 'freshman'. He's still a little dazed from the suicide of his best schoolfriend Kizuki. A chance meeting with Kizuki's ex Naoko leads to a complicated friendship between the two that soon begins to blossom into something more. However, all this is interrupted when Naoko's psychological damage finally takes its toll, and she moves to a treatment centre deep in the Japanese countryside. Struggling with the loss, Watanabe drifts aimlessly until he meets the colourful Midori. Complications inevitably ensue as Watanabe juggles the two very different and very complicated relationships.

The first problem I feel I should raise about this adaptation is the casting of Watanabe. There's nothing particularly wrong with Kenichi Matsuyama (of Death Note live action film fame) but Watanabe here - due either to poor writing, a mumbling performance by Matsuyama or, potentially, both - feels like a non-entity. In the book he was aimless, confused and drifting by design, but the film doesn't adequately capture that. It's hard to believe these two extremely pretty and interesting girls would fall for him, as he seems to be unable to answer questions with anything more than a mumbled "of course", notably commented on in the film itself. Luckily, Naoko and Midori are excellently cast. If I had to choose, I'd pick Midori in this case - Kiko Mizuhara is gorgeous and energetic, definitely capturing the essence of an instantly likable but silently insecure young woman. In a more difficult role, Rinko Kikuchi (who has infiltrated Hollywood with roles in Babel and The Brothers Bloom) is also impressive although almost inevitably less instantly appealing. However, her performance certainly captures the psychological complexities of Naoko and you can most certainly see what Watanabe sees in this troubled girl.

Kiko Mizuhara as Midori
Unfortunately, the rest of the characters are uneven, but that isn't entirely the cast's fault. Instead, subplots and minor characters are made far more incidental than they were in Murakami's book. This is unavoidable - after all, it's important to scale back and cut elements of the story when making an adaptation work on screen. This doesn't do the film many favours though. Nagasawa is a particular loss - an important friend and confidant to Toru in the novel, here he only appears in a handful of scenes to dispense some trite advice. Similarly, Reiko's role as Naoko's friend and spiritual companion has been cut back. This works a bit better though - although her pivotal, shocking third act confession is understandably absent here, her new found ambiguous history helps lend her character an air of mystery. Mostly, though, the lack of these subplots means the film lacks a bit of the character that defined the books. Even the back stories of Midori and Naoko are painted in broad strokes and throwaway dialogue.

I'm sounding negative - truth is I actually enjoyed the film. All adaptations need to cut corners to make a film that works, after all. What really impresses here is Hung's direction. The whole thing has a pleasantly ethereal vibe about it. The sense of nostalgia is captured well - to me, the film seemed almost dreamlike and hypnotic on occasion. The cinematography is beautiful - Midori and Naoko are framed particularly fondly, while the snow covered landscapes and cluttered dorm rooms are captured wonderfully. The student riots that are taking place in the background also lend the film a sense of authenticity, particularly in a great tracking shot near the beginning. Murakami's themes of regret and nostalgia are present and correct. I was a bit so-so about the much heralded Johnny Greenwood score though - while the discordant soundtrack is haunting and dreamlike at its best, there were a few moments where I thought it didn't work. One scene which should have been an emotional climax, for instance, feels more like a horror film; a particularly peculiar music cue in my opinion.

I had heard many reports that the film was 'slow', but I was never bored here during the extended two and a quarter hour running time, thinking it moved along agreeably. Almost too agreeably on occasion as it stripped the plot down to its bare bones - a frequent problem with literary adaptations. But for the most part it worked. I had plenty of problems with Norwegian Wood, particularly the almost absent protagonist. But somehow the film engaged me despite its numerous flaws. It was far from perfect, but as the titular Beatles song played over the end credits, I felt strangely pleased with this particular adaptation, and it lingered on the bus journey home. I can see how it could be viewed as somewhat cold and removed: it most certainly lacked the emotional punch and structural prowess of the book. Yet this Murakami adaptation was far less wooden than it could have been.

Just please don't let anyone near Kafka on the Shore.

1 comment: