Not so good wood

Better on the page than on the screen, ‘Norwegian Wood’ loses much in the transition from novel to film.

'Norweigan Wood' 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
'Norweigan Wood' 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Haruki Murakami’s moving and highly readable novel Norwegian Wood has been a bestseller all over the world. But a movie of this book faces challenges, and the film version of Norwegian Wood can’t quite overcome them.
In the novel, we get a full sense of the hero’s inner life, and his every choice or evasion is fraught with importance. The characters in the book are vivid in a way that has made Norwegian Wood appealing to millions. But in the film, the characters are gorgeous ciphers, and we have no clue what really makes them tick. While the film is lyrical, beautifully photographed and erotic, for those who don’t know the book, much of it will be dull or baffling.
For those who did love the book, the film will remind them why they enjoyed it and may send them back to reread it. But the movie won’t illuminate any part of the novel.
The one aspect of the book that does come through is the confusion and loneliness that young people often feel as they begin to face the adult world. Toru Watanabe (Ken’ichi Matsuyama) is a small-town high school student.
After his best friend, Kizuki (Kenzo Koru), commits suicide, he heads off to Tokyo University. The time is the late 1960s, but Watanabe feels alienated from the protests and tumult of the era. He spends his time alone, reading, working at various part-time jobs and hanging out with a ladykiller musician, Nagasawa (Tetsuji Tamayama).
When Naoko (Rinko Kikuchi), Kizuki’s grieving girlfriend, shows up in Tokyo, Watanabe finds meaning in his life. He consoles her and falls in love with her; but she, like her former flame, can’t cope with the world. She retreats to a mental institution in the mountains that looks like a fantastic spa.
Back at university, Watanabe meets Midori (Kiko Mizuhara), a free-spirited and very vital young woman living on her own, and he feels torn between her and his loyalty to Naoko.
While many scenes, notably those at the mental institution, which is situated in an unbelievably beautiful forest that looks great in all seasons, are compelling, the entire story doesn’t flow. I think the key problem is that Midori is not the central figure she is in the book. In the novel, she is funny, loud, outrageous and at times obnoxious. Throughout the book, she is the most engaging presence and the one who provides a much-needed counterpoint to the ethereal Naoko and the mopey Watanabe. Kiko Mizuhara, the actress who plays Midori, doesn’t do a bad job, but she is petite and quiet, and the character has been re-imagined. She doesn’t provide comic relief, and she doesn’t have the show-stopping scenes that would have made the movie come alive.
Instead, we’re left with Watanabe and his visits to Naoko, who quickly becomes something of a drag whenever she is onscreen. There are moments of silent rapport when you can believe in the love between these two characters, but much of the time Naoko is infuriatingly selfinvolved.
We’re supposed to share Watanabe’s infinite compassion for her, but you may find yourself marveling again and again at the fabulous scenery as they wander the grounds together.
The actors are all good, but their roles are underwritten. Rinko Kikuchi is the best-known of the actors. She rose to prominence with her role as the sexy schoolgirl in Babel and got a Supporting Actress Oscar nomination. The other actors are well known in Asia. The director, Anh Hung Tran, is Vietnamese and first made it onto the international movie scene with his equally atmospheric 1993 film The Scent of Green Papaya.
It’s odd that more of Harukami’s novels have not been filmed, since most contain elements – romance, noirish Tokyo, skeptical young narrators and beautiful, confident young women – that would seem to be cinematic. Norwegian Wood is one of Murakami’s few novels that don’t contain supernatural plot elements. It’s much more conventional than most of his works, which may be why it has captivated so many readers. But director Tran just couldn’t recreate the passion that Murakami brings to life on the page.