Narrated by a quiet and gentle college student, Tran Anh Hung‘s Norweigian Wood is a tumultuous coming-of-age story about dealing with death and finding love. Toru Watanabe (played by Kenichi Matsuyama) is a college student who loves to read, working jobs on the side to make ends meet. He falls in love with Naoko (Rinko Kukuchi), a troubled girl who is suffering severe depression after Kizuki, his best friend and her boyfriend, commits suicide. While Toru is able to move on from this loss, Naoko, due to her delicate mental state, must go to a sanitarium in the woods in order to heal. Though he occasionally messes around with other women, Toru discovers that he deeply loves her and dedicates himself to taking care of her, even though she still cannot get over her first love.
When the movie began, I instantly felt like I stepped into the 1960s, because the costumes and setting are spot-on. The score definitely made the time jump even more convincing. The cast is phenomenal, especially Matsuyama and Kikuchi. Even though the story did not win me over entirely, it was the actors who did with their solid performances. Overall, I felt mixed about this film. The movie was based on Haruki Murakami’s best-selling novel of the same name. Like most movie adaptations, the film doesn’t really do justice for the original, but I suppose that cannot be helped. Toru’s journey is definitely riveting, but there are places where I demanded more from the film that the book explained in more detail, like the student revolution movement that was only hinted at and not throughly explained with the haphazardly-placed rallies in the background. It would have been more helpful to know why the movie was named after the Beatle’s song—it was Naoko’s favorite—because that too was a mystery I didn’t quite understand from the movie.
Toru’s love life was also a bit confusing for me. I couldn’t see how the romance between Naoko and him really developed, since their “dating” days are all quick cut scenes without dialogue save a few coy glances between them hinting at some romantic attraction. The dating is a little rushed. The same goes for his relationship with Midori, another woman, because it is hard to understand how Toru and Midori can have feelings for each other while they have their respective partners. The movie is slow-paced and feels a lot longer than it actually is, but I can’t really blame the film because it requires much time to tell the story properly.
There are moments in the film that arrested my attention. Kizuki’s haunting suicide sent chills down my spine because of his nonchalance and ease with which he carried it out. Those few seconds felt so much longer than it really was. It made me think heavily about how delicate life is and what things could possibly push someone to do such a dreadful thing. There are also a few lovely moments in the film that make you smile, like the moment when Toru receives the letter from Naoko asking him to see her after so many months with no word. The scene is absolutely heart-warming, and I could tell how pure his feelings towards her was as I watched him excitedly run up the spiraling staircase. I give props to the filmmakers for being able to visually portray such perfect joy. Even if I didn’t feel the heat between Toru and Naoko at the start, I had some “awww” moments later when they spend time together at the sanatorium. The song “Norwegian Wood” serves as a thoughtful backdrop to the whole film: “I once had a girl, or should I say, she once had me…”
The film is full of troubled characters: Nagasawa, the playboy who can’t commit, Hatsumi, his devoted girlfriend who can never win his complete love, and Midori, the playful flirt who has feelings for Toru even though she has a boyfriend. All have problems and conflicts because of their relationships, and some are still unresolved by the end. But the most difficult character to read is Toru. The ending feels a bit hollow and it left me wondering if his love for Naoko was completely true. Despite this half-satisfying ending, it was the strength of his character that inspired me and really gave a take-away message. He is forced to suffer a number of losses and hardships, more than any of the other people in his life. But he always gets back on his feet and pushes on, understanding that life is going to bring him sorrow. For the first half of the film, I classified this in my mind as a romantic drama, But there is a point at the film that makes me feel it is more a bildungsroman. Toru mentally speaks to the deceased Kizuki, saying that he won’t abandon Naoko the way his friend did and that he is “going to grow up.” Toru slowly matures as the film progresses. The characters constantly talk about growing up; on Naoko’s birthday, she confesses her fears of becoming 20. I realized then that all of the characters are suffering some type of crisis nearing adulthood and are faced with making some vital, life-changing choices. I can see a few of my own questions and struggles reflected in the characters’ experiences.
One thing is for sure: in this film, everyone is searching for happiness despite how much they have suffered. I found myself rooting for all of them to come at some resolution. Though it is set in 1960’s Japan, the movie is just as impacting on a modern audience in the US. Its universal themes of hope and courage resonate to all 20-somethings who have insecurities about taking the next step in their lives.
Norwegian Wood’s release dates are as follows:
Friday, Jan 6
IFC Center, NYC, NY
West End Cinema, Washington, DC
AMC Loews Shirlington 7, Arlington VA
Friday, Jan 20
Music Box, Chicago, IL
Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, San Francisco, CA
Friday Jan 27
Laemmle’s Music Hall, Los Angeles, CA
SIFF Cinema at the Uptown, Seattle, WA
St. Anthony Main Theatre, Minneapolis, MN
Theatre N, Wilmington, DE
Friday, March 2
Regal Fox Tower, Portland, OR (following PIFF screening)