“I don’t go out of my way to make friends”
The hugely popular Japanese novel by Haruki Murakami, ノルウェイの森 [Norwegian Wood], has made the leap to the big screen via director Anh Hung Tran, its North American Premiere held at the Toronto International Film Festival. A coming of age tale about a late-teen boy named Toru Watanabe, we are shown the unpredictable world of the 1960s amidst school, protest, love, and loss. What probably resonates much more through the written word, the film adaptation finds itself to be insanely depressing, distilling the life of Watanabe so that it appears he experiences three suicides, major emotional turmoil, and more tough, sexual choices in the span of two years than most people have in their lives. Not only does his childhood best friend Kizuki take his own life in high school, leaving his girlfriend Naoko in rough shape and Toru to go off to Tokyo for college alone—an event told matter-of-factly through voiceover—but he finds a more liberal way of living in the big city through his lothario acquaintance Nagasawa, sleeping around while his lover Hatsumi watches. Watanabe wants to live life, but the depressed soul within prevents it; his love attracted by those who are unstable emotionally without fail.
Tragedy seems to follow Toru around, and while it may be necessary for him to evolve as a person, learning life lessons the hard way, it’s a major downer to sit back and watch for two hours. I have not read the novel, but supposedly it shows the perils of growing into adults through the eyes of both Watanabe (Ken’ichi Matsuyama) and Midori (Kiko Mizuhara). This makes sense since the relationship between those two does become the longest lasting and most complicated of all in the film, but Tran has decided to stick closest to the male lead, his character being the one that touches all the others who travel through the plot. As it is, Watanabe and Midori don’t partake in a real union until much later, despite their genuine feelings for each other—she is the most mentally stable of any girl he comes across by far, so it’s a shame he couldn’t avoid the other tragedies. They meet as friends while both are already attached, she with a boyfriend we never meet and he with the ex-girlfriend of his old best friend, Naoko (Rinko Kikuchi), still pained from the suicide and never really able to recover. Her relationship with Toru only brings back memories and regrets.
If I’m to fault anything about Norwegian Wood, and I must to find reason with why it drags, it has to be with the script. There is very little to be happy about in watching Watanabe go through these formidable years, backdropped by the Beatles’ song of the title with its lyric “I once had a girl, or should I say, she once had me.” In all honesty, that line is a perfect, concise summation of the film. All these women enter Toru’s existence, but none of them ever truly open up. He gives them his love, unconditionally, but there is always something preventing their full involvement with him. I won’t go so far as to say they use him for his compassion while in precarious mental states, yet that may be the most apt description. We watch this boy get hurt over and over again; it becomes an exercise in futility as every new person entering his life holds the stigma of eventually leaving him, the world, or both. Watanabe serves as the vessel for them to pass through into the next plane of existence, the one kind-hearted soul they’ll encounter to make up for the sorrow and disappointment weighing them down.
But perhaps that is the intention of the story, to give us a look into a character willing to take the pain and survive, better for it, by knowing he touched these people in whatever small way he could. Maybe the true subject of the film is watching these periphery players find the release from darkness they so hope to achieve. If that is so, well then Norwegian Wood is even more depressing than I initially thought. And it’s the performances making it that way because they are so good. You can see the love behind the eyes of Matsuyama and Kikuchi (an amazing performance by her, finally able to emote verbally after two almost completely mute roles in Babel and The Brothers Bloom), but also the undeserving quality that they aren’t good enough to share such a magnificent bond. Tetsuji Tamayama’s Nagasawa is a great mix of likeability in how he treats his friend and extreme villainy in his handling of his girlfriend, she quietly inferring, “Why am I not good enough for you?” And then there is Reika Kirishima’s Reiko, Naoko’s friend in the psychiatric commune of theirs, a woman with her own hidden problems that culminate in an odd exchange with Toru (odd if you don’t know the reasoning, explained to me in detail by my friend who did read the book).
It is Mizuhara’s Midori who stuck with me the most, however. She is the stable love in stark contrast to Naoko’s always-volatile mindset. A strong-willed girl who knows what she wants, you can respect her fidelity to her boyfriend along with the feelings for Watanabe, becoming the one positive the audience can hold onto; a hope that maybe these two will eventually come together. Until that time, though, I will credit Tran the director where Tran the writer might have failed, (but I give him applause in attempting to film this novel), for some stunning visuals on the journey. His care and handling of the sexuality both with love scenes and those absent of the actual act is fantastic; his eye for beauty in composition with nature, the sun shining through trees to wash out the image, is magnificent; and his stunning minimalism depicting one suicide’s hanging feet in close-up as the camera pans away or a long-take monologue by Kikuchi’s Naoko, winding back and forth in a deserted field with Toru trailing, is unforgettable. It’s somewhat of a headscratcher, having such vibrant visuals to portray a story of extreme sadness, but maybe that’s Tran’s way of keeping hope alive—something alluded to at the end as Watanabe moves forward into the future.
ノルウェイの森 [Norwegian Wood] 6/10 | ★ ★ ½
courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival