Thursday, 10 March 2011

Norwegian Wood

The story of how Haruki Murakami's much-loved novel "Norwegian Wood" made it to the screen is almost a movie in itself. Vietnamese-French director Tran Anh Hung (The Scent of Green Papaya, Cyclo) first approached producer Shinji Ogawa four years ago and expressed his desire to direct the film. Ogawa sent a letter to Murakami, who was initially wary but gradually warmed to the idea. Over the course of four years Tran wrote the screenplay in French and had it translated into English (it was this English version that he used in communicating with Murakami). It was then translated into Japanese, and Tran proceeded to direct a film in a language he doesn't speak. At a press conference he argued that this was actually an advantage, because "when you can't understand the words you can tell immediately if a scene is bad, and when you see that it's good you want to make it even better."

Fans of Tran will immediately recognize the film as his: "Norwegian Wood" is a story told in textures and colors. The smooth flesh of young men and young women, the brightly geometrical patterns of 1960s fashion, sun gleaming through colored glass windows and filtered through cigarette smoke. There are very few wide shots in the film, creating an intimate atmosphere of warm interiors-cabins in the woods, cramped dorm rooms, funky Tokyo apartments, record shops, stylish bars. "Norwegian Wood" seduces immediately on visuals alone.

The story concerns three college student friends in 1960s Japan. Naoko (Kikuchi) and Kizuki (Kora) have grown up together and have been a couple since they were in junior high school. Kizuki's best friend Watanabe (Matsuyama) accompanies them everywhere. When Kizuki suddenly commits suicide, the already fragile Naoko begins to fall apart. Having been secretly in love with Naoko for years, Watanabe clings to her even as it becomes clear that she cannot function in the real world, retreating to a sanatorium / commune deep in the mountains. When a free-spirited girl named Midori (Mizuhara, in a remarkable debut) comes into Watanabe's life, he is forced to choose between his attachment to a fading Naoko and a life lived in the present.

Murakami's story and Tran's film both evoke a very specific place and moment - Tokyo in the 1960s, a time of passionate student protests and a period of transition, when the embrace of free love and a lifestyle unburdened by rules actually seemed possible to many college students (who would, for the most part, ultimately graduate to join major corporations and abandon their ideals). The film's characters seem to stand at the cusp of a better and brighter future, but the pain of the past continually comes back to haunt them. This juxtaposition of a world of bright colors, casual sex, and endless possibilities with a world of unexplained death and loss is a poignant love letter to youth and rebellion.

The performances are all top-notch. As Midori, Kiko Mizuhara manages to convey an amazing amount of information with only a slow, toothless smile-the character often comes across as grating in the novel, but in the film she seems to light up every scene she's in. Kikuchi conveys Naoko's fragility without making her merely an object of pity. The love scenes between various characters are raw and real, with sex standing in (often painfully) for the emotional connections they were never able to forge. When so many young Japanese actors in dramatic films frequently resort to emoting and fake crying, or are forced into love scenes that seem impossibly contrived, it's refreshing to see a group of performances that feel natural and effortless.

Some have commented that the film is far too serious - Murakami's novel had a lot of funny dialogue, much of which has been removed. Murakami purists may also take issue with the more superficial treatment of some of the story's relationships. Ultimately, though, the changes are for the better. Murakami novels are known for characters that spend an inordinate amount of time talking about themselves, but the film manages to convey their thoughts more effectively with silence and strong acting.

At its most basic level, Murakami's novel is pure melodrama. Translator Jay Rubin comments that those who had first read the author's "cool, fragmented, American-flavored narratives on mysterious sheep and disappearing elephants" were disappointed to discover that "Norwegian Wood" was "just a love story." Indeed, in a less capable director and screenwriter's hands the result could have been just another over-the-top story of young love and loss. But Tran Anh Hung takes the material and elevates it to something sublime, turning a much-loved but fairly conventional story into a work of art.

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