Japanese film review: Norwegian Wood

Based off Haruki Murakami’s best-selling novel of the same name, “Norwegian Wood” begs the question: Is love enough to fill the emptiness felt after experiencing death of a loved one, and save a person from a death of self?

Long time lovers Kizuki and Naoko

1960’s. Watanabe Toru (played by Kenichi Matsuyama) is the quintessential third wheel to lovers-since-birth Kizuki (Kora Kengo) and Naoko (Rinko Kikuchi). Being Kizuki’s best friend, the three of them grew up together, with both boys sharing a deep friendship while the seemingly young lovers had a connection that was more than that of a typical boyfriend and girlfriend relationship. Without a word of warning and without any ominous signs, Kizuki committed suicide, leaving Watanabe and Naoko the weight and lingering pain of his death.

Best buds Kizuki and Watanabe

A year later, Watanabe went off to a college in Tokyo at the time when student protests were abound and when Japan was in a state of political unrest. Just when Watanabe was starting to adapt of university dorm life (by filling his days with books and study), Naoko appears, and the two start an odd relationship as they try to overcome the void left by Kizuki. On the night they slept with each other, Watanabe found out that Naoko never slept with Kizuki. The day after, Naoko disappeared without a word, and she would later write letters to Watanabe from a sanatarium far off the city, hidden in a secluded area in the mountains. Meanwhile, as Watanabe was going through hardships waiting for Naoko, he meets an outspoken, witty and strong-willed girl named Midori (played by model Kiko Mizuhara). From being the third wheel, Watanabe finds himself torn between two paths which call for him to either choose a love tormented by the past, or a love with an unknown future.

I’m an avid fan of Murakami’s works. I was first exposed to his brand of writing in college, when I found Sputnik Sweetheart one a boring day at the library. And after reading Norwegian Wood, it never ceases to amaze me how Murakami is able to express a different side of human nature, death, and how he completely embraces and explores sexuality in a way no other writer has ever done before. Which is why I was apprehensive about the movie adaptation, it’s not so much about the question of whether it will stay true to the book—but will it capture the depth of meaning of Murakami’s musings and questions?

Kenichi Matsuyama, without a doubt, was a superb choice to play the role. He has this natural awkwardness that’s endearing, and a mysteriousness about him which enabled him to carry out the whole movie on his broad, manly shoulders while looking pretty damn dapper in 1960’s fashion of tight fitting jeans and polo (lol insert dirty fangirl thoughts here). Anyways, Watanabe’s impression on me based on the novel was that he’s an all around good guy. Granted, he gets corrupted by his perverted dorm-mate Nagasaki now and then when they go around town to sleep with girls, and even going as far as swapping sexual partners on a night of debauchery. He’s a 20-year-old guy after all. And there were times where it seemed like Watanabe was just going with the flow, going wherever the circumstances took him, and accepting or doing favors with an easy “Yes, of course.” But as the story progresses, he showed that he was struggling within himself: of finding the meaning of true responsibility, of what love really entails and realizing that death is more than just a means to end life. As for Kenichi, his acting was very subtle and he held on to a composed, strong personality until circumstances called for him to give all his expressions out in a scene where he cried his soul as if there’s no tomorrow. It’s a pretty tough role even if he looks like a simple character at first glance. He was able to show the inner struggle that Watanabe was having and it’s interesting how he pulled it off with his oftentimes quiet, poker-faced yet kind expression. I say poker face because there are moments when Kenichi seems like he’s lacking in reactions when the moment calls him to, but for me that’s how Watanabe really is—he’s an ordinary guy, a bit clumsy, a bit shy and unsure of himself.

Rinko Kikuchi as Naoko was just as impressive, portraying the role of a troubled young girl who “hears voices” and on the brink of giving in to nothingness. Despite her love for Kizuki, she never really got “turned on” so far as they can go “all the way” with each other. But she felt for the first time in her life, a powerful sexual desire when she slept with Watanabe. This begs the questions: did she really love Kizuki, or was her love for him so deep and what she felt for Watanabe was mere physical attraction? I think Rinko did a great job at acting Naoko’s sorrow, depression and desperation without being over the top. I know now why the girl who played Naoko seemed too familiar to me. I found out that she played the delinquent student in the US movie Babel starring Brad Pitt and Kate Blanchett. I thought then that she showed promise. In Norwegian Wood, I honestly think that Naoko’s story was a tad too frustrating to read—readers are constantly bombarded with her constant wavering back and forth between unfounded guilt, sorrow and remorse. In front of her is a living, breathing man who genuinely cares for her, but she only sees the dead Kizuki. She doesn’t hear Watanabe’s comforting words of hope, as she’d rather hear the haunting voices of the past. It’s bewildering if Naoko really loved Watanabe at all. Rinko, on the other hand, kind of annoyed me with all her “drama” but it only showed how effective she is.

The movie portrays the novel in such a straightforward way, so true to the progression in the novel that even some of the lines were delivered word per word by the book. There were some important elements left out though, but that I’ll touch on later.

Murakami’s book was much, much more sexually graphic and charged than the film portrayed (which was quite a disappointment, really lol). But the director presented the sexual scenes in such a tasteful manner together with the cold, dark backdrop which portrayed a rather depressing feeling despite the intimacy—but that’s the main point I think. The passion of making love, the desire to be with a lover—-these scenes could’ve been better though. Because one of the central themes of the story was giving one’s whole self to another, and poses the question of what hinders Naoko to do just that.

Kiko Mizuhara as Midori, on the other hand, had much more chemistry with Matsuyama, but it was a bit sad that they weren’t given enough screen time together. Somehow the movie didn’t give enough to Kiko for her to be able to capture Midori’s quirkiness, though she was indeed a breath of fresh air in the otherwise melancholic movie. I totally loved her character in the book. She was fearless but not indifferent, and she’s pretty funny. Quite the opposite of Naoko really, even though she’s been through a lot of tough times too. She shows how one can look at loss in a different way. There were a lot of back stories in Midori’s life the film could’ve focused on instead of the lesser unimportant details, like the whole deal with her sick father and the odd connection Watanabe felt with him, or the time when Watanabe took Midori for granted. Nevertheless, Kiko was great and the camera loves her!

Like I said, there were a lot of important plot elements left out in the film like a background on Reiko (Naoko’s friend), or  Naoko’s background and family life that  could’ve given her character more nuance than just someone who can’t get over her boyfriend’s death. But given the time constraint (the film was already 133 minutes long!) and the fact that film adaptations can never really encapsulate the reader’s infinite imagination, the film was able to give justice to Murakami’s treasured novel as it opened more questions, delved into his sometimes twisted philosophy and gave a face to Watanabe. Two thumbs up for the music that gave a feeling of nostalgia and heaviness that the story calls for. Minus points for the director’s excessive camera panning on the lush greens of the mountains or the waves of the sea just to drive emphasis on an emotion. I’ll definitely watch it again!

I wish I could’ve seen more of:

Nagasawa, played by the suave debonair Tetsuji Tamayama (of Sunanare and Nana fame). He’s such an intriguing and complex character. Tetsuji’s pretty hot, too!

More Tetsuji hotness. Kinda looks like Big Bang’s TOP from his chiseled profile, no?

Kengo Kora as Kizuki. Even though he had a brief appearance in the movie, he definitely captures attention.

Kiko Mizuhara. Such a lovely girl!

Cutest couple evarrr!


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