A stunningly cinematic adaptation of Murakami’s novel, Tran Anh Hung’s Norwegian Wood may be a cheerless picture of teen love, sex and death, but it is colourful.
The Virgin Suicides by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers.
Isn’t it good, Norwegian Wood?
I have to confess, I couldn’t make it through the book. So I was hopeful that Tran Anh Hung’s adaptation would be enough to help me appreciate Haruki Murakami’s introspective, nostalgic and apparently unfilmable novel. Funnily enough, the part I remember best from the book has been excised from the film, with the older Toru on a plane in Hamburg airport yearning for a lost youth to The Beatles’ track. While the Fab Four’s song is a sardonic anthem to youthful excess, all first love and violent anguish, Tran Anh Hung’s Norwegian Wood, is poetic and visually enriching. In fact, not like wood panelling at all. For me sadly, it is a true adaptation – I find it just as hard to connect with Toru, Naoko and Midori’s forlorn love troubles onscreen as much as on the page. But there’s no taking away from Tran Anh Hung’s cinematic flair. Perhaps unsurprisingly for the director of The Scent Of Green Papaya and The Vertical Ray Of The Sun. But like a lingering perfume, it’s both intoxicating and a little sickly.
The spectre of suicide looms large over Norwegian Wood – the story only starts with Toru and Naoko doing their best to get over the death of best friend and childhood sweetheart Kitsuku. Their teenage ménage à trois has collapsed abruptly, and their sexual awakening and childhood innocence is broken under the spell of Kitsuku’s self-asphyxiation. It’s a morbid refrain that recurs time and again, as Naoko who takes to a sanatorium, further fragilised by Kitsuku’s death and her sister’s suicide, hangs herself in the forest. Much of the narrative centres around their fragile lives and romances as these Japanese teenagers try in vain to find love in the time of harikiri.
Caught between teen spirit and adult indifference, they mooch in circles, unable to navigate the choppy and slightly depressing waters of first love. But nevertheless, it’s triangles they’re all trapped in. Like a geometric Sixties shirt, these tessellating triangles of love, sex and death rotate in a bewildering pattern, a net they can’t escape. Haunted by their dead loved ones, virtually all the protagonists are wandering ghosts themselves. There’s lothario Nagasawa and saccharine-sweet Midori, Toru’s breath-of-fresh-air love interest, who tries to fend off grief at her father’s death by going to see a porn film. But for music teacher Reiko, Naoko and Toru, they’re caught between looking back at death, having sex and trying to carve out a future.
Naoko is the most helpless, unable to put herself back together from her true love’s death and betrayal, unable to imagine she could ever have that love again. But for both Toru and Reiko, sex it seems is the answer. When Reiko leaves the sanatorium and comes to live with Toru, their intercourse is more therapeutic than erotic. And not long after, she heads off to Asahikaniwa to teach music and fall in love again. Whereas after Naoko’s death, Toru (whose dichotomy between life and death is neatly mirrored in his threesome with Midori and Naoko) heads off to a remote inlet to vent his grief in decent isolation.
Toru’s choice is between a happy, sweep-life’s-tragedies-under-the-carpet love where sex is a psychotherapeutic tool to stave off grief and a deeply tormented, death-obsessed love. And with Naoko biologically unable to make love, the sexless road is a barren path that offers no redemption. It’s even mooted Kitsuku kills himself because he couldn’t face a life of no sex with Naoko. But for Toru, sex is life and the little death of orgasm keeps the spectres of grief at bay.
A curiously Japanese mix of love, sex and suicide, Norwegian Wood is, like the book, unfathomably opaque. Wrong time, wrong place, wrong gender? But Tran Anh Hung’s film, at 133 minutes, is a glorious parade of breathtaking images. There’s a fascinatingly repetitious tracking shot as Naoko and Toru wend aimlessly through grass-blown green fields, like a stuck Beatles record. From the stark, industrial beauty of the swimming pool to the sunkissed snowy intimacy of their young love or the Sixties period detail, Mark Lee Ping Bin’s cinematography is stunning, charmingly complemented by the production design’s vast array of retro-fashionable scarves, hats and beads. Like doe-eyed babes in the Norwegian wood, the lead performances are also beguiling, Kenichi Matsuyama and Rinko Kikuchi both handsome models of youthful languor. Is it good, Norwegian Wood? Yes. Just not sparkling enough to light a fire.
Norwegian Wood is released on 11th March 2011 in the UK