Norwegian Wood

I once had a girl, or should I say, she once had me… She showed me her room, isn’t it good, norwegian wood?

Those are the opening lyrics from the Lennon/McCartney tune Norwegian Wood which was penned circa 1965. That’s a long time ago.

In 1987, Japanese author Haruki Murakami wrote a novel entitled Norwegian Wood. The novel begins with a man (Toru) hearing a cover of that song which causes him to think back to a time 20 years before and to think of his relationship with a woman named Naoko.

Moving forward to the present and the very near past – in 2010, the novel Norwegian Wood was adapted for the screen. The Paris based Vietnamese film director Ahn Hung Tran took Murakami’s book and brought it to the screen with a Japanese cast. Netflix has this film listed but doesn’t have an available date yet – but you can save it for a future viewing. Or you can track it down  and order it from a few vendors on the web.

The story is a tale of the past and the present battling within one man. Toru, played by Kenichi Matsuyama had a couple of childhood friends, a girl – Naoko (Rinko Kikuchi who appeared in Babel) and her guy – Kizuki. Very early on one of these people will take their own life. Of the two that remain, one will go on to a sanatorium as life in the real world has become impossible .

(left to right) Toru, Kizuki, and Naoko

The film is set during a time when upheaval and revolt (Make love, not war – or in this case USA leave Okinawa) seemed to be going on everywhere. It was a time of the Beatles, hippies, and it was the time of sexual awakening. The topics are loss, love, loss of innocence with side roads into despair, longing, and desperation. The director and his crew have lovingly recreated this period for us in the clothes, the haircuts, the attitudes, the protest marches, and even the automobiles.

That’s the overview. From a review perspective this is a difficult film. Tran has captured the essence of the book at a cost of much of the detail. It seems that the film is disjointed.

It doesn’t quite careen from one era to the next – it does have a linear quality, but it is hard to follow because of the gaps stemming from what’s missing from the book.

For example, in one small montage, Toru’s roommate comes back to the hostel and sees that Tohru is reading a book. He takes the book from him saying why waste time with a book. There are real girls waiting to have fun with us. From there to a foursome in a bar to a girl asleep in a bed – we see her hair and her bare back, and a leg sticking out from under the blanket. From the book to the bed in twenty seconds. Only we never heard her speak, or learned her name. Characters enter and leave before we can realize their purpose. Of course, being faithful to the book would have made the film into a five hour marathon.While you ache with Toru, his pain is yours. You wear it intellectually just as he wears that pain as a metaphysical heavy cloak.  He has to deal with the fact that while life continues around him, he is inexorably and continually drawn to his past.

He is unable or unwilling to let himself forget Kizuki, or for that matter, mostly his ties to Naoko remain forged in steel – unbreakable, seared forever into his present, his past, and all of his tomorrows.

Naoko performed by Rinko Kikuchi

A new girl enters his life. She is Midori (played by first time actress Kiko Mizuhara), or in the DVD I watched, she was called Green which is what the word Midori means in Japanese. She was the polar opposite of Naoko. Aggressive rather than shy, confrontational rather than passive, and while she didn’t have the beauty of Naoko, she had something that Naoko lost when she lost Kizuki – a life force.

Midori as performed by Kiko Mizuhara with Toru

We watch with awe as the majestic camera work is often heartbreakingly beautiful, and memorable, and beyond, even reaching unforgettable. These woods may not be Norwegian, but they’re as beautiful as any you’ve seen or will ever see.

The scenes in shades of blue, or the chapters in the elemental forests with their greens, browns, and earthly hues are so memorable. You will always find the actors in these shots even if they are small figures shot at great distances in fields of high grass which is in continual motion from the winds,

or as the two lovers approach each other on a snowy road in the highlands far from the city. The gentle snow fall seem to add warmth if that makes any sense. The snow fall is like a blanket that gently envelopes the people on-screen and we along with them

There are the close-ups as well that are breathtaking. The small details will remain etched in your mind’s eye. A super-slow motion exit from a swimming pool, or maybe it is the snow in Naoko’s hair in a wintry scene.

Maybe you can remember when you were making your first calls to a member of the opposite sex. Neither of you were good at conversation, but wasn’t it special just to know that she or he was on the other end of the phone. Wasn’t it fine to hear that breathing over the open line.

Beyond that, you can recall the loss of your virginity. Well you may be able to re-live it to a degree here in Norwegian Wood. There are quite a few scenes of a sexual nature and while they can convey passion, they’re strangely distancing. Which is the overall downside of this film.

Tran and his Cinematographer/Director of Photography, Ping Bin Lee, achieve so much with this film visually. Yet my overall impression is that while the story told in this film does reach you – it reaches inside of you intellectually rather than making you feel the passion, or the depth of despair, or the sheer ecstasy of loving someone.

Again, how do you describe a film that has so much beauty, yet ultimately leaves you disappointed. I think I shall never forget this film’s beautiful imagery but I’m sure I won’t remember the actors or the characters names by next week.

2 thoughts on “Norwegian Wood

  1. Surprised I didn’t know this had a film adaptation! It appears your reaction to the movie mirrors the book a bit; lots of great stuff going on, but by it’s end did we care at all? Still will check this one out.

  2. As of January 28th 2012 – Netflix still hasn’t got an available date for the DVD, not are they offering it as a streaming video either. You might be able to find it on eBay.


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