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Norwegian Wood – Review

by Miguel Douglas

@isugoi

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Set in Japan in the 1960’s, high school student Toru Watanabe loses his dear friend Kizuki, who suddenly commits suicide for no apparent reason. Toru, now looking to rebuild his life, enters a university in Tokyo. By sheer chance, Watanabe meets Kizuki’s ex-girlfriend Naoko. They begin to hang out and grow increasingly close as they share the same loss. As Toru and Naoko grow even more intimate, Naoko’s sense of loss for Kizuki also grows as well. After Naoko’s 20th birthday, she leaves for a sanitarium in Kyoto to better her psychological state. Watanabe, devastated by her sudden departure, meets pure-hearted Midori during the spring semester. Watanabe begins to ponder his relationship to both women as he ultimately decides the direction of his life.

Based on the novel written by Haruki Murakami—perhaps one of the most famous authors known within and outside of Japan—Norwegian Wood as a novel offered a fascinating look into the eccentric period of the 1960’s within Japan. Providing the framework for such tremendous insight into the cultural specifications that dominated that period—student protests, increasing Western influence and of course music—Murakami created an environment that also allowed his characters to explore the inner turmoil that existed within their own lives as well. Presenting a tale of love, loss and coming of age, Norwegian Wood remains one of Murakami’s most simplistic and popular novels to date, with a wide range of controversial subjects and characters explored throughout the work. With the advent of a live-action film being suggested and eventually brought to fruition, the material at hand to make a genuine film was plentiful, but also could be viewed as a hindrance. Having personally read the novel, it would be interesting to know just how much they would be able to fit within the context of a film—and how much they would inevitably have to leave out. What Norwegian Wood is able to accomplish as a film is truthful to the original novel in many instances, but there are also numerous setbacks as well.

As with most written works that are to be adapted into film, there is bound to be certain sequences or entire story arcs completely changed for the sake of fitting within a considerable running time. Perhaps even the novelty of certain characters is diluted in order to elicit an immediate response from those viewers unfamiliar with the film’s extensive source material. Unfortunately, Norwegian Wood as a film suffers from instances of both, and while some films are able to recover what was lost in translation through other means of elaboration, director Anh Hung Tran seems rather conflicted in what he wants to focus on within the film. What’s surprising is that what made the novel so riveting was the interaction between its characters—their feelings, personalities, and viewpoints on life all culminated in how they related to each other. We were able to envision their vulnerability as human beings and how their various approaches towards life could eventually lead them down rather destructive paths. As a reader, this establishes a sense of believability and familiarity in which we are able to grasp and realize as conceivable to some degree. As a viewer though, the approach Tran takes reinforces the film more so as an aesthetic experience than a character study, with the latter being such a crucial element within the novel. Wherein the novel we are able to correlate the narrative structure through Watanabe’s inner dialogue and observations, in the film we begin to view a sense of detachment of such intricacies as its characters are removed from showcasing such dialogue or observations.

As such, the confused and emotionally vulnerable characters of the novel are seemingly diminished from view, with Tran seemingly more concerned with establishing a visceral experience rather than focusing on the characters themselves. Since the novel was very stringent upon the reflection brought about by Watanabe to promote its story, it’s rather odd to see the narrative of the film focus on other elements that in the novel were rather minute. The societal pressures that all the characters seemingly faced within the novel are severely toned down within the film, only to make way for a stronger insertion of its love story. While this is certainly a viable solution towards addressing the extensive nature of the novel, the film somewhat becomes a tired exercise on the complications of sexual desire versus authentic affection—an approach we’ve all seen in other films. Without the insight towards the characteristics of these individuals, the film’s focus—its tumultuous love triangle—losses much of its strength and falls into tediousness as the film progresses. Having read the novel, this comes off as rather striking because it was an integral element to the story. For those not familiar with the novel, it could become rather confusing as certain characters are brought into the fold without much introduction let alone presence, and seem rather inessential towards influencing the direction of Watanabe’s choices. It’s important to note that these side characters are what made the novel unique and interesting to read, plus they were rather influential in Watanabe’s life—which again is odd to see omitted or reduced within the film.

As often seen in other films, this approach creates a divide between those familiar with the source material and those who are not. Coming into viewing the film with prior knowledge will certainly help you understand the characters and the choices they make throughout the film. While this knowledge isn’t essential per se, it would allow one to better understand the story overall, and in a sense allows the story to develop more appropriately. Despite these setbacks in narrative structure, the film does an adequate job in other regards. For one, the extensive focus upon the setting of the film is absolutely fantastic. What we are given is a film that remains visually powerful regardless of the detrimental elements of its story. The arresting cinematography truly encapsulates the emotional journey of the characters, and certainly fixates itself upon bringing about a sense of an era long passed. This coincides with the acting as well, with for the most part is quite accomplished. Who truly showcases the melodramatic amplitude in the film is that of Rinko Kikuchi, who offers a touching and moving performance as Naoko. She accurately displays the psychological uncertainty that plagues the character found in the novel, and to see that translate on to the screen is wonderfully heartbreaking to say the least. With most of the inner dialogue missing from that of Kenichi Matsuyama’s portrayal of Watanabe, it’s rather disappointing see that his performance neither expresses emotional range let alone much effort. The same can be said about Midori, played here by actress Kiko Mizuhara. Presenting a rather sub-par performance, her first acting role is surprisingly removed from the spunk and free nature conveyed by her novel counterpart. Yet again, this is most likely due to the absence of traits that would better define these individuals, and this notion unfavorably extends to the remainder of the cast as well.

In the end, Norwegian Wood remains inevitably a film lost in its own beauty. While removing many of the attributes that created the livened world envisioned in the novel, the film version is left substantially barren in many respects. Viewers who go into the film after having read the novel might be disappointed to find character development lapsing and elongated sequences that lend very little towards plot advancement. While one may subscribe to the notion of showing rather than telling within the realm of cinema, the background that Norwegian Wood provides as novel would have easily made the film just as interesting if it was better implemented throughout. Director Tran certainly has a keen eye towards capturing the essence of the novel within the film, but at what cost? Understanding the importance of this particular story within Japanese society—and in a larger sense internationally—it’s somewhat disappointing to see how it was handled. Not as complementary towards the novel as one would hope in this regard, the film is still able to retain qualities that were present within the novel. Perhaps with a more attentive approach towards its characters, Norwegian Wood would have made for an overall emotionally riveting experience, and while it remains such in many instances, sadly omits various facets that made the novel such a captivating experience.

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Author: Miguel Douglas

As an avid viewer of both Japanese animation and cinema for more than a decade now, Miguel is primarily concerned with establishing a critical look into both mediums as legitimate forms of artistic, cultural, and societal understanding. Never one to simply look at a film or series based solely on superficiality, Miguel has dedicated himself towards bringing awareness to Asian entertainment and its various facets.

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Comments

  • http://soler7.com Tad Boniecki

    Thank you for writing this review. I have not read the book, but I can imagine that the novel contains many more meanings and layers than could be expressed in a film. Expressing the thoughts and feelings of the characters is one area where film can never match literature.

    I found the character of Midori as played by Mizuhara entirely captivating. Her obvious confidence, self-assurance, proud carriage and straight-shooting nature, combined with knowing her own mind and valuing herself made a big impression on me. What man would not be smitten by the approach of such a woman? Perhaps she is even more impressive in the novel, but one rarely sees such a strong female character in films. So I think you are too harsh on Kiko!