Perhaps it’s the surreal, often science-fictional edge. Perhaps it’s the Kafkaesque clash of reality and fantasy. Perhaps it’s the gloomy exploration of trauma and loss. For whatever reason, few filmmakers have attempted to tackle the fantastical fiction of popular Japanese author Haruki Murakami (Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles, IQ84). In 1981, Japanese director Kazuki Omori adapted Murakami’s first novel, Hear the Wind Sing. Jun Ichikawa took on the short story “Tony Takitani” in 2004. The majority of Murakami’s work, however, remains untouched, possibly un-adaptable and firmly anchored to the page.
Undaunted, French-Vietnamese director Tran Anh Hung (The Scent of Green Papaya, Cyclo, The Vertical Ray of the Sun) bravely knuckles down on Murakami’s mope-tacular 1987 novel Norwegian Wood. It’s a wise choice. Norwegian Wood is one of Murakami’s more grounded works, a nostalgic look back at Japanese college life in the late ’60s. Though anchored somewhat by time and place, the story is a mostly universal coming-of-age tale—as familiar to modern American twentysomethings as it would be to Japanese baby boomers.
The story is narrated by Toru Watanabe (Kenichi Matsuyama, best known as L in the popular Death Note movie series), who grew up in Kobe, knocking around with his best friend Kizuki (Kengo Kora) and Kizuki’s beautiful, lifelong girlfriend Naoko (Rinko Kikuchi from Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel). At age 17, just as high school is ending, Kizuki commits suicide. Watanabe attempts to put the shocking, unexplained incident behind him and heads off to Tokyo for college. A couple of years later, he’s surprised to find Naoko at the door of his dorm room. The two reconnect, express long-buried feelings and end up in bed together.
Before their relationship can go anywhere, however, Naoko disappears again. Left confused, emotionally vulnerable and bit horny, Watanabe meets a cute, outgoing classmate named Midori (Kiko Mizuhara). She has a boyfriend to whom she seems devoted, but her flirtatious relationship with Watanabe does little to alleviate his sexual and romantic confusion.
A few months pass and Naoko contacts Watanabe once again. Seems she’s committed herself to a mental hospital in the mountains. She’s attempting to work through her issues (whatever they may be) and wants to keep Watanabe in her life. What’s a mixed-up 20-year-old to do?
The pace of Norwegian Wood is slow, the compositions are stark, the dialogue is minimal. Anyone who’s seen Tran’s previous works will understand the gloriously unhurried canvas he’s painting. It’s a perfect match for Murakami’s tale of frigid girls and numb boys. But viewers are advised to allow the film some time to develop. This is no shallow teenage love story. There’s a lot going on here—starting with a series of relationships based on tragic circumstance and carrying through with a group of characters who are either desperately conflating love and sex or mistakenly partitioning the two. In addition to our central love triangle, we’ve got intriguing supporting characters like Watanabe’s lady-killer pal Nagasawa, Nagasawa’s long-suffering girlfriend and Naoko’s advice-dispensing roommate at the hospital. It’s not hard to see why Norwegian Wood became such a beloved book in Japan. Most everyone who’s lived through their early 20s can find some sort of kinship in this roster of vivid characters searching for their place in life.
Though it’s clearly set amid the turmoil of the late ’60s, Norwegian Wood doesn’t have much of anything to say about the counterculture. The frequent student protests that erupt in the background are little more than a dull buzz for our protagonist’s emotional chaos to drown out. Similarly, the film doesn’t try to portray mental illness in any sort of realistic light. We never so much as see a doctor or get an inkling of what Naoko’s problem might be. Instead, the film is a reckless celebration of that time in life when the first stumbling steps toward adulthood make everything seem terribly important. The fact is, few people end up with their first love. Hence, most people’s earliest memories of romance involve broken hearts and hurt feelings. Norwegian Wood pokes that old scar for maximum pleasure and pain.
At 133 minutes, there are those who will write off Norwegian Wood as a self-indulgent, quasi-poetic emo ballad of love and pain. Although it’s just as likely there are those who will worship it for the exact same qualities. There’s a heavy amount of mopey melodrama here, but the reactions of the characters are both realistic and familiar. The feeling of tragedy hangs heavy over the proceedings—from the gloomy music to the increasingly wintry backdrops. And yet, the film builds a satisfying emotional arc that concedes sometimes bittersweet is the best you can hope for.