She once had me – Norwegian Wood review

Norwegian Wood – Starring Ken’ichi Matsuyama, Rinko Kikuchi, and Kiko Mizuhara. Directed by Tran Anh Hung. Rated MA. By Hilary Simmons.

When I worked in a bookstore, one of the authors customers would reliably rave about was Haruki Murakami. They always listed Norwegian Wood as one of his best novels. I haven’t read it – and whether that makes reviewing Vietnamese-born Tran Anh Hung‘s adaptation easier or harder is up for debate. It’s always difficult translating literature to film, and when it’s a narrative that relies heavily on abstruse, apparently soap-operatic dialogue, it’s bound to be additionally divisive. So for devoted fans of Murakami, I apologise for any lack of awareness of key scenes and crucial conversations from the book; this review stands as a reflection on the movie alone.

Watanabe (Ken’ichi Matsuyama) is reminiscing about his life as a Tokyo college student in the 1960s. It was a life, he reveals, driven by death; suffused with the suffocating sadness of his best friend Kizuki’s suicide. When a chance encounter puts him back in contact with Kizuki’s long-term girlfriend, the lovely but listless Naoko (Rinko Kikuchi), their shared pain at first seems like something that might lead to lasting love.

But only at first. Both of these exquisitely tragic characters are too tentative, emotionally and sexually, to do more than skim the surface of their deep-flushed longing, desolation and loneliness. After they act on their desires on Naoko’s 20th birthday, Naoko commits herself to a remote rural institution, and Watanabe, understandably bruised, reinvents himself with his adventurous roommate, Nagasawa (Tetsuji Tamayama). He begins an arch affair with a self-assured classmate, Midori (Kiko Mizuhara), who provides a welcome foil to his wan inertia. It also raises the question of how long Watanabe can continue to sweetly pine for Naoko in her forest retreat.

Ultimately Watanabe needs to choose between life and death – action and inaction – and the gorgeous cinematography reflects this, stitching together vivid cultural and geographical scenes of Japan in the 1960s. Dramatic shots of students protesting contrast effectively with Watanabe’s dreamy lethargy, and the endless references to sex leave you impatiently waiting for each character’s sexual awakening. Norwegian Wood is long, elegantly shot, immensely moving in parts, and immoderately melancholic in others.


Norwegian Wood arrives on DVD and Blu-ray April 19, 2012.

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